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

Hey, I'd buy that postcard. No matter where you are, it'd still be accurate.
Hey, I’d buy that postcard. No matter where you are, it’d still be accurate.

By this point the Nightmare films were officially on auto-pilot, each one more profitable and less sensible than its predecessor. In terms of sheer dollars, the initial trilogy of Nightmares became a living refutation of the Law of Diminishing returns. The first grossed $25 million in theaters. Freddy’s Revenge pulled in over twice that. Dream Warriors broke them both, along with the bank, with an $87 million gross. Its success triggered the last great wave of Slasher movies. Most of them are rightly and truly forgotten, looked down upon even by sub-genre fans as the movies that finally ruined everything for everybody.

Except this one. While researching this review, I found an inordinate number of folks willing to give Nightmare on Elm Street 4 a pass. Not just for the usual, “It’s a Slasher movie, whaddaya expect?” bullshit reasons, but for their own reasons, varied as the person itself. Too bad I’ve always hated this movie. And now that I know why. I know this movie and I were destined to be enemies from the start. Say what you want about New Nightmare or Freddy’s Dead. For me, coming off the high-highs of Dream Warriors, this movie became the lowest of the series many lows.

After Dream Warriors, Wes Craven came up with some crazy damn thing involving time travel. With dreams. Series producers Sara Risher and Robert Shaye saved us all from that, only to dump this crap on us by hiring Finnish director Renny Harlin. Despite going on to actual fame as the director of Die Hard 2, and going on from that to direct my favorite Shane Black Movie (The Long Kiss Goodnight)Harlin is doomed to burn in the Seventh Level for starting his directorial career making commercials for Shell Oil. Great job there, producers! I already hate your movie and all I’ve seen is its director’s bio.

I’ve purposefully repressed my memories of seeing this train wreck at an early age, and now see the error of that. If I had remembered it, the tendency of modern movies to fall apart about forty-five minutes in and become…not “stories” so much as…a series of loosely connected events, would’ve been much more explicable. I’ll try to describe The Dream Master in a calm, rational way…but I’m telling you right now, the result won’t make sense.

Yeah...not gonna do the Lionel Ritchie joke again.
Yeah…not gonna do the Lionel Ritchie joke again.

After the usual creepy folderol with the creepy little kid on the sidewalk in front of 1428 Elm Street, we catch up with…some blond girl…wait…is that supposed to be…Kristen? Yes, Patricia Arquette caught a case of pregnant between films, so the role of Kristen – our last Final Girl, proto-Buffy and defacto series heroine – will now be played by…a one-hit wonder named Tuesday Knight…whom you can hear singing the theme song over the opening credits. (Was this her one hit? I don’t care enough to look it up, so this is me, crowd-sourcing.)

After bouncing around the old Elm Street house a bit, the understandably freaked-out Kristen calls her Dream Warrior pals, Kincade (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman) into the boiler room. Hell, Rodney Eastman gets credited before Kristen Mark 2 and I don’t hear him singing any theme songs (though he apparently plays bass – good on you there, Rodney). Right away you can see what the producers were going for: even more continuity. Because that’s helped past Slasher franchises so much…bleedin’ Christ…

Like the first four Friday the 13th films before it, Nightmare 4 catches up with the survivors of Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital an indeterminate number of years after the events of the last film. Our bland teenage trio of have successfully integrated back into mainstream Springwood society, going so far as to rejoin high school and make a few new meat friends.

See? Continuity's nice!
See? Continuity’s nice, you know?

Or Kristen has, at any rate. The boys don’t really matter. You can tell whoever originally came up with this plot line (whether it be the producers, or any of the four credited screenwriters, all of whom quit to join the WGA Strike of May, 1988, so all their good ideas could’ve been thrown into a furnace out of spite and we’d never know it) structured it around an actual actress. Did it have to be Patricia Arquette? From an objective standpoint, no. But if this movie wanted any chance of achieving its intended effect of wrapping fans in a warm blanket of continuity, then the answer had to have been, Hell yeah. Idiots! I’ve suspended a good deal of disbelief as is, but you have to meet me half way for this relationship to work Nightmare on Elm Street 4. It’d be like replacing Batman with a new actor every damn film…which is exactly what started happening not seven years after this. It sucked for that franchise, it certainly sucks for this one, and I think it’s done James Bond way more harm than good over the decades.

I know. I’m stalling. Because what follows is a traumatic memory for me. For all Patricia Arquette’s bad acting, I actually liked Kristen Mark 1. I still do. She held her own against Kreuger in his own dimension, something no one managed to do before. So what does this film do? Kill her off! Of course! That’s just what Slasher movies do with reoccurring characters. Crazy Ralph, Alice…Laurie Strode (who died between Halloween films…or so we’re led to believe) …dear, fallen Nancy…You Die in the Sequel. It’s just how these things go. Knowing this, I’m automatically winding a deathwatch for these Dream Warriors. It only takes thirty minutes because the film can’t waste time building up to their deaths. Oh no. Far too much New Meat running around.

First, Kincade sees his dog (Jason) piss fire onto Freddy’s grave: a dreamworld version of the junkyard Dr. Bill Maher buried him in last time. For some reason, flaming dog piss makes the ground split open and Freddy’s skeleton re-grow its flesh in a manner not at all ripped-off from the first Hellraiser movie, I’m sure. “You shouldn’t have buried me,” Freddy says. “I’m not dead.”

"I might bring back versace shades."
“I might wear red and green four years straight…I might bring back Versace shades…”

Bullshit, Krueger. At this point, you’re dead several times over and I’m beginning to see the last little dregs of un-life drain out of this franchise. The boogeyman with knives for fingers is dead! Long live the new boogeyman, Prince of the One-Liners! The industrial darkness of the first (and second…sorta…in some scenes) has given way to a color scheme that surely couldn’t have influenced a young(er) Joel Schumacher…could it?

Whatever the case, Freddy kills Kincade with a simple stab to the gut. With Joey, all bets are off, and any attempt this film had to fit in with the original or Dream Warriors dies with him. Paying visual homage to Johnny Depp’s death four years (and films) earlier, Freddy sucks Joey into his own water bed and drowns him. No fountain of blood this time, though. Wouldn’t want an X rating. God, I could be re-watching Johnny Depp’s death right now…but, now that her friends are dead, I have to watch an understandably distraught Kristen try and convince the New Meat that Freddy’s back. Again. And again, they don’t believe her, because all the monstrous murders about town have somehow slipped their minds. Yadda-yadda-yadda…

You see what killing off the reoccurring characters right after you introduced a whole new cast does for my disposition? I get all anxious and pissed. Because now the film’s told me in no uncertain terms, These meat bags are all going to die, too! Hope we didn’t spoil anything! Only the most promising, original, and creatively-plastic series in the entire sub-genre, assholes. No big deal to me, but I doubt Wes Craven took it as well as he lets on. Maybe that’s why all his subsequent films suck to one degree or another. Subliminal guilt from bringing this down upon our heads.

Robert Englund. With a fake nose. In drag. This is better Nightmare Fuel than anything in the last few movies.
Robert Englund. With a fake nose. In drag. This is better Nightmare Fuel than anything in the last two movies.

Because it’s not enough for Kristen to see her oldest friends die. Her mother has to dose her up with sleeping pills, too. That way, Kristen can make way for our latest Final Girl: Kristen Mark 3…though the script calls her “Alice “(Lisa Wilcox), so I suppose I should too. Problem is, Alice is a completely blank slate and thus spiritual sister to the Alice from the original Friday the 13th. Except that Alice was doing her boss, making her inherently more interesting than this one. Just as this film is inherently less-interesting than the original Friday the 13th. And that was a cheating murder mystery.

Speaking of murder, half an hour in, Freddy kills Kristen. In a last ditch effort to protect her friends, Kristen transfers her powers of…I guess I’ll call it “dream teleportation”…to Alice…somehow. This also, somehow, links Freddy to Alice, allowing him to kill her friends through her, after she pulls them into the Dream so the movie can continue, hoping that we’ve forgotten our antagonist’s motivations.

See, if you remember Nancy’s speech from Dream Warriors, the Westin Hills group were the last of the original Elm Street Children: those whose parents originally burned Freddy to death, the objects of his Quest for Vengeance. With Kristen’s death, he should be done, right? Story over: evil wins. Except we’ve still got an hour of movie left. And it’s here we realize the surviving Dream Warriors weren’t brought in to continue any kind of overarching story. They’re here to pump up the body count because Alice doesn’t have enough friends.

Man...I could be watching Reefer Madness right now...damnit...
Man…I could be watching Reefer Madness right now…damnit…

Oh, sure, there’s her brother – a Ralph Machio worshiper named Rick (Andras Jones), who begins the film as Kristen’s boyfriend and ends it…well, dead. Big surprise. Rick’s friends with Dan (Danny Hassel), the film’s Jock Spice. Alice begins the film crushing on Dan, she’s just too shy to do anything about it. No points for guessing some extraordinary circumstances will bring the two together by the end. Or that the two will Conquer All through the Healing Power of Love.

In the mean time, Alice has a friend in Debbie (Brooke Theiss), who would be the film’s Generic Girl Spice if not for her hatred of bugs and her passion for working out. Then there’s Debbie’s Token Black Friend, Sheila (Toy Newkirk) who has asthma and glasses, meaning she fills the Nerd Spice role. Would it surprise you to learn every one of the New Meat’s too-few lines of dialogue exists to telegraph (I’m supposed to say “set-up,” but fuck it) their demises?

By now you can see what went wrong: Nightmare‘s producers assimilating all the worst bits of that other big Slasher franchise. Especially the cardboard characters with drama-free lives, perpetually twelve steps behind us. Because all the continuing characters who might’ve helped them figure out what’s going on are all dead now. So our living characters have to learn everything (Freddy’s history, the erratic nature of his powers, the secret history of their Small Town) all over again from scratch andI’m bored.


Of course this bores me. It’s exactly what it’s intended to be. Formulaic. Safe. Dull. Maybe I’m not as bored as the professional critics who reviewed this film when it originally came out (nor as righteously indignant about what horrible things these horrible films would do to Teh Children), but by the hour mark I was well and truly getting there. When you hear critics lambaste the acting skills of Slasher movie casts, know that, when it comes to certain periods (like this, the Last Gasps of 1988-94) they are quite right in their blanket condemnations and dismissals. Nothing worse than spending two hours with boring people…unless those boring people have the emotional range of bricks.

Going down the cast list, what do we find? Plenty of struggling musicians (like Tuesday), but where the hell are the actors? The young, hungry, rising stars? Your Jamie Lee Curtises, your Kevin Bacons, your Johnny Depps? Where are the older, slumming, honest-to-God stars of the B-movie’s glory days? Your Pleasences, Palmers or Saxons? Where are the directors who know how to use Dutch Angles well (because, brothers and sisters, Renny Harlin sure as shit ain’t one of ’em)? Where are the screenwriters capable of slipping exposition in naturally (answer: on strike, because they weren’t getting paid enough to get treated like fifth wheels) rather than have one character prompt the other to deliver Clunky Expository Statement B with Obvious Set Up Line A?  Unnecessary, all of them, as far as Shaye and Risher were concerned. After all, the death scenes are the only cool things anyone cares about…right?

Jaws: First as Parody, then as Farse.
Jaws: First as Tragedy, then as Farce.

Maybe. But Dream Warriors was cool as a whole because its good parts (a story that actually felt like a sequel to Nightmare 1, a decent cast of young actors, Nancy’s relationship with Dr. Maher) out-weighted its crummy ones. If we accept that, we realize Part 3 was a lucky accident, impossible to repeat without repeating the conditions of its success. And those were some expensive ass conditions by New Line’s standards at the time. So expensive, recreating them might’ve taken more than a year, and Shaye and Risher certainly couldn’t accept that. They had to fart this out before the craze died off, goddamnit! So who needs directors who can speak their actor’s language? Or actors who can deliver lines without ringing a termite dinner bell?

Instead, the Dream Master‘s producers hired special effects companies. And as soon as I saw their individual credits slide by, I knew exactly what happened: they – rather than any writer or director, other than Craven, maybe – got to pitch their ideas first. “Oo-oo,” someone said to Shaye or Rishner, or both. “I know! We can have Freddy and the Final Girl share a pizza and have all the meatballs be the screaming faces of Freddy’s victims!”

Following Poe’s philosophy of composition, the makers of Dream Master worked backwards from their intended effect. Presumably, they intended to horrify their audience. Can’t you just see the tag line? (“You’ll never look at pizza the way same again!”) And, hey: the scene’s set in a diner? Perfect! Have the Final Girl work there and, bang, we’re done with her character. She’s a waitress who becomes a bad ass, the franchises’ own Sarah Conner.

Yes, horror writers, we all read Kafka when we were kids. I get it. I really do. But I've also gotten over it.
Yes, horror writers, we all read Kafka when we were kids. I get it. I really do. But I’ve also gotten over it.

“Oo-oo,” someone else said, in another pitch meeting. “I know! We can have Freddy turn someone into a cockroach! Then trap them in a roach motel! Everybody saw The Fly two years ago, right? Well, we’ll do that whole flick in five minutes for half what Rob Bottin charges.”

“Great,” the producers responded. “We’ll throw some line about her hating bugs. Bam. That’s two characters down, at least five more to go. Shit, this is easy. Is this what Paramount’s been doing with itself these last eight years? Who needs writers at all? Fuck ’em, I say. Much more streamlined process we’ve got, right here. Why didn’t we think of this sooner?”

Because you were trying to make good films…asshole. The Dream Master is a special effects clip-show, tacked onto the most idiotic plot in the series (so far). A plot that remixes all the series worst bits with arbitrary additions to the mythology that make no fucking sense. And now that I’ve lived through yet another WGA Strike, and quite a few of the horribly deformed films that issued from it, I can see the scars shinning through this movie’s gloss. So it turns out Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen does have something to teach us. You heard it here first, kids.

Why does Freddy need a conduit in the first place? Why are his dream-manipulating powers suddenly restricted to these “Elm Street Children”? I always thought that was just a personal choice on his part. That whatever alchemy allowed him to survive death allowed him to enter the dreams of any living being. He chose to hang out in Springwood, killing kids, because that was his whole thing. And if the crowded halls of Springwood High are any indication, he’s left a lot of work undone.


But we can’t let the plot escape these FX exhibitions. Hell, despite only existing to justify them, the plot can’t help attempting to break free. So it piles on more bullshit mythology through the Slasher movie’s go-to Theme Delivery System: the boring, classroom lecture. Laurie Strode daydreamed through the most famous example, in the original Halloween. But unlike there, here Alice learns all she needs to know to beat the monster…but, because she fell asleep in class, it takes her an hour to put everything together. And it gives Freddy a chance to kill her Token Black asthmatic friend.

You see, Aristotle believed that, in dreams, the soul escaped the body. Dreams were what it saw in its travels. Now, there are two gateways to the body; one positive, one negative. The negative gate’s guarded by a demon…monster…thing…while the positive gate’s guarded by your usual Warrior For Light. A Dream Master. This crap apparently compliments a childhood nursery rhyme Alice’s had stuck her head this whole movie. No, it’s not “One, two, Freddy’s comin’ for you.” Yes, she’ll managed to remember it at Just the Right Moment, and it’ll prove instrumental to “defeating” Freddy…for about a year, at least.

It’s all so uninspired and route even its few and far-between interesting points piss me off…like the fact Kincade’s dog is named “Jason.” Or the fact Alice, over the course of the film, realizes that she’s (somehow) absorbing the Dream Powers and Abilities of her friends. Not only their Dream Powers – the way she absorbed Kristen’s – but their real life, physical skills besides. When Rick dies, suddenly Alice knows Kung Fu. (Whoa.) Debbie gets Kafka-ized and suddenly Alice has super strength. Etc.


Problem is, unlike the Dream Warriors in the last film, Alice’s powers carry over to her real world self. Which compounds another problem this franchise keeps suicidally ramming into: Freddy’s wildly fluctuating power levels. In the first and third films he’s a straight-up bogeyman, and society’s continued disbelief in him seems a little more explicable. (Especially when his kills all wind up looking like everyday teenage suicides, or freak sleepwalking accidents.) On the other hand, in the second film and this one, Freddy’s a goddamned necromancer, able to warp reality with as much (if not more) ease than the dream world. One and Three (along with two deaths in this installment – would it surprise you to learn the movie’s not at all internally consistent?) confine the range of Freddy’s effects on the real world to a logical and suitably-horrific place: his victim’s bodies. Two and Four, on the other hand, let Freddy do whatever the fuck, because special effects showpieces dictated their story beats.

It’s not enough that Kristen die – she has to die in a spontaneously combusting bed, because Freddy just threw her dream-bod into a boiler. Alice and Rick have to have something dramatic to stare at when they brush Kristen’s screaming mom (who has yet to call the fire department) aside and burst in on Kristen’s funeral pyre. (Cue Dutch angle…of course.) It’s not enough for Joey’s dream self to drown in his own waterbed. Once we cut back to the real world, we have to see him floating on the other side of his bed’s (unmarked) plastic skin. It’s like an entire movie’s worth of Jennifer’s death-by-TV in Dream Warriors. That was my least favorite death in a movie that contained Nancy Thompson’s. Think about it.

I never thought I’d long for the days of spontaneously combusting tiki-torches and “You are all my children!” but Dream Master‘s internally inconsistent dream physics make Freddy’s Revenge look like a tame piece of homophobic exploitation (which Part 2 totally is). The worst part is, this movie had several perfectly good built-in outs. They could’ve followed the first two films and made the whole damn thing a dream. Why the hell not? The producers were so dedicated to Wes Craven’s “formula” they drove Craven away. Why chicken out at the last minute?

And now we know where Joel Schumacher got all of his best ideas.
And now we know where Joel Schumacher got all of his best ideas.

Maybe they didn’t. Throughout the film, Alice keeps experiencing day dreams so vivid they hijack the narrative, temporarily breaking the story’s flow to add depth and shading to Alice’s character. (This, in case you don’t know, is a Good Thing.) Dan comes across the parking lot and asks her out…except, whoops, he doesn’t. Alice finally tells her drunken piece of shit father off…except, whoops, she doesn’t. At Rick’s funeral, her brother climbs out of his coffin to say one last goodbye, which we all know doesn’t happen. Even Alice. And points to the film for making her brother’s death, as opposed to her boyfriend’s, the final inciting incident that gets off her (quite nice, especially in a pair of 80s jeans) ass.

Alice pretty much saves this flick, but even her Hero’s Journey is chopped up to make room for gratuitous pop-culture references other people can call “surreal” if they like. I tend to call the Jaws sequence, the mysterious claw slashes that appear across Springwood High’s lockers, Rick’s Japanophilia, Joey’s Death by Centerfold, Freddy’s Risky Business sunglasses, and this film as a whole “stupid.”

Like Harlin’s decision to shoot Freddy with just enough light to show off every slapped-on, lazy detail of his crappy make-up. Its a good fit for Englund’s lazy one-liner delivery. I’m amazed how little of a shit Englund gave about this role barely a year after it brought him (arguably) his greatest success as an actor. You can see him grinning around gritted teeth all the way through the movie…and I think it’s safe to say Freddy’s big motivation in this film was the director’s chair for 976-Evil.

Yeah. Sad to say, but 976-Evil was the shinning source of hope that Robert Englund clung to, every day, when he reported to the make-up artist’s chair.  Now that I’ve seen this film for the first time in fifteen years (and hopefully for the last time in my life), I can understand that at last. Not that it makes anything any better. Things will get much worse before we can wake from this long, slow nightmare.


"Mmmmm...horror pizza..."
“Mmmmm…horror pizza…”

16 thoughts on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)”

  1. Nice review. Not sure if this, 5, or 6 was the low point in the series, but when my old roommate and I powered through these about 5 years ago, the drop in quality (especially in the fact that its essentially a series of special effects set pieces and nothing more) from Dream Warriors was so steep it induced whiplash.

    1. At this point, it’s a toss-up between this and Freddy’s Dead. Part 2 might’ve been off-putting, full of retcons, and weird…but at least it wasn’t boring!

        1. Same here. I barely remembered this one, which is usually a bad sign. Plus, I somehow managed to forget the ’88 Writer’s Strike, but once I came across mention of it, everything clicked together. Living through 2009’s effectively inoculated me against the terrible films made during such dark periods.

  2. “And now we know where Joel Schumacher got all of his best ideas.”

    Yes, The Dream Master is the “Batman Forever” of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

    Ah, Renny Harlin… what a hack. I find it funny that New Line got Tobe Hooper to direct, not the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but an episode for the Freddy TV series, and hired some guy from Finland instead to make the fourth movie….

    Also doesn’t that bug hating chick look like Ali Larter?


    1. Though, to be fair, that was late-80s Tobe Hooper. Lifeforce Tobe Hooper. Amazing Stories Tobe Hooper. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Tobe Hooper. Not my first, second, or even fourth choice for a Nightmare film in world of Cravens, Carpenters, Cunninghams and Steve Miners. Now, if they’d managed to pluck late-70s Tobe Hooper off the set of Eaten Alive or The Dark or Salem’s Lot….then we’d be talking. Then, for the first time since 1984, we might’ve gotten an appropriately nightmarish Nightmare film. But while real directors cost money, prosthesis costs a lot less. So Renny Harlin gets a career and we got Dream Master. Which is another way of saying, “We got served.”

      1. Hey I kinda like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2… Tobe Hooper’s direction certainly isn’t bad.

        Have you seen The Funhouse (1981), directed by Hooper? That one is pretty ‘nightmarish’.

            1. I preferred it over, E.T. That’s for damn sure. But beyond that, I’m pretty curious myself. Been about fifteen years since I’ve seen any part of that particular trilogy.

        1. Second this-The Funhouse might not be perfect, but it’s definitely it’s own animal, breaks all kinds of Slasher film laws (so much so it could be considered more of a slasher fellow traveler) and (for my money) really captures the feeling I used to get when I was very young and going to the local fair every fall was both exciting, and a bit scary, what with all those odd traveling people manning the rides and selling junk, the whiff of teen sex and drinking coming from the midway, and the fear that I could get separated from my folks and bad things could happen to me. I think Hooper tends to be best when latching those kind of elemental fears onto a country fried context, in this case a dinky traveling carnival going through small towns.

  3. It’s been a while since I watched Poltergeist. I remember it being a stellar film, but also so impersonal. While it was directed by Tobe Hooper, it was however a Spielberg production. And the film has that ‘Spielberg Glow’ to it that makes me want to puke. Have you seen Insidious? It’s basically Poltergeist re-imagined as a Tobe Hooper project with all the Spielbergian influence removed.

    I’m not a fan of E.T. It scared the shit out of me as a kid. I prefer John Carpenter’s Starman. Jeff Brides is a better alien…

  4. 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.

    1. Actually I can deny its entertainment value – very vehemently. I find its style as annoying and nonsensical as its story, a shotgun approach to the formula its producers drew up, meant to please those who prefer kills to characters. Wilcox has the advantage of playing the only character in the movie. Her transition, while philosophically sound, feels rushed and ill thought-out because it has to share time with all these shout-outs to better films…films I could be watching instead of Dream Master.

  5. I don’t know… while this film doesn’t break my top three of the series.

    the original
    dream warriors
    New Nightmare

    Would still certainly put if above the other sequels.

    To me the low point was probably the dream child or the original series of films… Freddie’s Dead and part 2 being down at that level as well.. but ranking ever so slightly higher.

    1. Dream Child certainly had its low points…but in the end Stephen Hopkins’ camera work, Lisa Wilcox’s improved acting, and the final chase through a Michael Whelan painting combined to leave me feeling…the best way to describe it would be “full.” Dream Child felt like an actual move, made by actual movie makers who were trying their damnedest to make an actual movie.

      Dream Master, by contrast, always plays like a clipshow…or a ninety minute sketch comedy that happens to contain mass-murder. “Live from Elm Street, it’s Saturday night!” I don’t know whether to properly blame Renny Harlin (who in thirty years has made exactly one movie that I like), the studio who told him to make Dream Master quick and cheap, or the Writers Strike of 1988, which left the special effects technicians free to come up with all the important story points. I’ll bet that made Harlin’s job easier. All he had to do was figure out how to block the wires out of frame and voila! Time enough left to squeeze in more pop-culture references…because that’s what this series really needed to fire on all cylinders.

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