Get ready for Freddy. Recurring Nightmares is a 10-week look at the entirety of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that started on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, and runs through Halloween 2022. (Yeah, only nine movies, but also one TV series; the rhyme does go, “Nine, ten, never sleep again,” after all.) It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week will feature an essay about a piece of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in chronological order, written by Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts … or, as Freddy would say, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
To see just how much mainstream moviemaking can change over the course of a few decades, look no further than 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Horror arguably remains as steady a box-office draw today as it ever has, but how many current slashers feature a villain with the same kind of pop-culture relevance as, say, Iron Man does today? Plenty of Gen Z kids could tell you exactly who Freddy Krueger is without having seen a single Nightmare movie, but will the same be said about Jigsaw or the Babadook in 20 years?
The fourth Nightmare movie represents the true swan song of not just the series itself but ’80s slasher films in general. While there were still sequels to come after this — some rather successful — The Dream Master is undoubtedly Peak Freddy. It was the MTV-ification of Freddy Krueger, where the razor-gloved dream demon became both the star of the show and hero of the story. Director Renny Harlin (the man behind 1990s actioners such as The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea) said that, in this installment, he hoped to make Freddy “the James Bond of horror,” and boy, are those intentions abundantly clear when watching it.
With The Dream Master, Harlin is less interested in trivial matters like character and story than putting Freddy in scenes where he sports sunglasses or spouting “How’s this for a wet dream?” before drowning a kid in his water bed. New Line Cinema, the Nightmare franchise’s home studio for the past 38 years, decided to go full Poochie with Freddy in this outing, and as a result, any scene that doesn’t feature Freddy may as well be white noise. There’s nothing to this movie outside its bombastic dream sequences and (mostly) fantastic kills, but luckily those aspects rank among the series’ best.
Technically, there are characters here, a few of whom appeared in the previous sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. However, where that movie had the benefit of a script by Wes Craven and Frank Darabont, this screenplay doesn’t have much time to lend these teenagers any personality beyond incredibly broad archetypes. We have our heroine Alice (Lisa Wilcox), a quiet girl who also has some vague dream powers that allow her to fight Freddy; Rick (Andras Jones), a real hunk who’s super cool and tough and practices karate moves in his room all day; Sheila (Toy Newkirk), who we know must be a real dweeb because she wears glasses and constantly gasps into her inhaler; Debbie (Brooke Theiss), who’s into fitness or something? Look, those descriptions required more effort to write than the movie bothers with in the first place. This is the Freddy show, and the only reason the audience needs to know, for example, that Rick is into karate is so that Freddy can turn invisible and spar with him in a dream dojo when it’s Rick’s turn to die.
Thankfully, New Line gave The Dream Master the series’ biggest budget to date — it would promptly go down the following year for the Gothic-tinged fifth entry, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child — and that money is on the screen. Nearly every dream sequence impresses, whether it involves Freddy’s glove slicing through the water like a shark fin and blasting up through the sand or serving a pizza with the faces of previous victims replacing sausages, there’s always something imaginative or memorably goofy popping up on screen every 10 minutes or so.
Makeup effects artist R. Christopher Briggs is the unsung hero here, and his handiwork is front and center in the movie’s centerpiece kill, which is quite possibly the series’ finest … and easily its most gruesome. The sequence finds workout-nut Debbie’s home gym turning into a roach motel as her body rapidly morphs into a cockroach, her skin peeling off onto the motel’s sticky surface to reveal horrendous bug features underneath. It’s a genuinely harrowing transformation in an otherwise silly movie, something that would feel more at home in a David Cronenberg nightmare than a popcorn horror flick.
Perhaps equally commendable is that for the fourth entry in one of the big slasher series (alongside Friday the 13th and Halloween, naturally), The Dream Master is pretty damn solid. Most of that comes down to Harlin understanding the assignment: Audiences want wild nightmare set pieces and nonstop kills. It was a formula of which the moviegoing public soon grew tired, but for a brief and glorious moment in 1988, it was all Freddy all the time.