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.”
Five years after its initial installment, Freddy Krueger’s franchise had essentially become a farm team for filmmakers eager to prove their chops for bigger projects. Director Chuck Russell followed up 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors with 1988’s remake of The Blob. Renny Harlin’s reward for 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, then the series’ highest-grossing entry, was 1990’s Die Hard 2.
So it was with similar hopes that British-Australian filmmaker Stephen Hopkins signed on for 1989’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. It’s arguably the franchise’s most direct sequel — and to its biggest hit, too, continuing Dream Master character arcs in full without a laborious, half-hearted, even re-cast effort to return surviving Dream Warriors in #4.
What Hopkins got was four weeks to shoot and four weeks to edit, an experience he described thusly a year later to Fangoria: “(The film had) a rushed schedule without a reasonable budget, and New Line and the (Motion Picture Association of America) came in and cut the guts out of it completely. What started as an OK film with a few good bits turned into a total embarrassment. I can’t even watch it anymore.” Of course, Hopkins was promoting his work on Predator 2 at the time of the interview and went on to direct Judgment Night, The Ghost and the Darkness and a number of 24 episodes. Like Russell and Harlin before him, Hopkins came out of this just fine.
The austerity proves auspicious in a sequel that’s neither secret success nor franchise nadir. Frozen take: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare is worse. Warming-up take: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is the best sequel. Hot take: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is the second-worst sequel. Freddy exploding from the TV take: Dream Warriors isn’t far behind those worst ones, either.
Denied the dollars to level up the delightful kills of Dream Master, Hopkins and screenwriter Leslie Bohem go for a horror look that’s more grounded, gothic and generally well-rendered by effective lighting and set design. The cockeyed, cattywampus perspective a la Terry Gilliam in a flashback to Freddy’s conception, as “the bastard son of 100 maniacs,” is especially noteworthy, as are matte-painting backgrounds that could almost be described as dark Disney. It’s all Dutch angles, German expressionism and the ingenuity of American independent film on which New Line, the house Freddy built, was initially founded; in one moment, a car’s late-night approach to a large asylum looks like someone literally flipping on a tiny light in the distance.
After the maximalist Dream Master, it’s a refreshing choice but not always a rewarding one. Freddy’s body count is noticeably anemic, the lowest of any Elm Street film. The gobbledygook lore Bohem piles on is profoundly boring, as Freddy has somehow found a way to gate-crash the real world through a fetus that spends most of its time dreaming and there’s yet another restless spirit to be given peace a la Dream Warriors (this time Freddy’s mother, Amanda Krueger). There are only two kills of note, noticeably MPAA-compromised as Hopkins decried. Frankly, what The Dream Child most successfully carries to term is an empathetic, emotional engagement of teenage trauma and pregnancy. It reflects a decade-ending boiling point in the tension between Hollywood button-pushers and political pencil-pushers reforming America as a moral majority — the mostly decade-long rejoinder to which was still a few years away.
Respectively returning as Alice and Dan, actors Lisa Wilcox and Danny Hassel feel more comfortable together onscreen, perhaps because they sense there’s less spectacle to swallow them up. Having survived Dream Master, Alice and Dan are fresh out of high school and dealing with decisions to make about their pending baby, unexpected but not necessarily unwanted. Of course, Dan’s a goner once he starts nodding off en route to celebrate with Alice — as he’s mutilated in a Cronenbergian fusion of Dan and machine on a motorcycle, where wires wriggle into his flesh and he’s biologically bound to a chassis that bears Freddy’s face.
Thanks to his death scene being cut from Dream Master, Nicholas Mele also returns as Alice’s recovering-alcoholic dad, Dennis. There’s a striking sensitivity to a scene in which Dennis welcomes a new addition to the family — not only to further mend his grief over dead son Rick (who fell to Freddy in Dream Master) but to take a crack at providing a positive paternal influence after Dan’s demise. Before making them Freddy fodder, Bohem also establishes solemn solidarity among Alice and Dan’s circle of friends, one that’s rooted in the sudden, sad shattering of their post-graduation dreams for one another.
Of course, there is the potential for Alice to not have the baby, which one friend, Mark (Joe Seely), raises. In fact, he asks the question that very way, which avoids vocalizing “abortion” altogether, and while The Dream Child arrives at the only pat political plateau possible for a mainstream slasher movie in 1989, it at least poses the question. And naturally, Dan’s parents want in on the child-rearing action, too, which is both consistent and canonical with themes of this franchise: Misguided Boomer parents who believe a bumper crop of babies will bury all of their sins, with this set aiming to remake Alice’s baby in a yet more perfect image of their own dead Dan.
Perhaps all of this makes The Dream Child sound more like a Very Special Nightmare, or a better movie. But it’s far more interesting to see this in a franchise’s fifth entry than skateboarding Super Freddy ripping up a comic book-paper version of Mark to kill him. The Dream Child at least also knows that it’s schlock, dispensing with the high-minded introductory quotes about sleep as though you’re watching a thoughtful treatise on the subconscious.
It’s also not surprising that Freddy’s eventual plan is taking over the body of Alice’s child, embodied as a creepy pre-teen future vision by Whit Hertford (who later played the dig-site kid Alan Grant frightens in Jurassic Park). Yes, this incarnation of Freddy was essentially riding the jock of new blood like Good Guy doll Chucky, whose far superior Child’s Play a year earlier supposed similarly supernatural possession and indulged in far nastier exploitation of child endangerment along the way.
The Dream Child is definitely more of a title and a few stray ideas than a cohesive movie, it mostly collapses into the usual maelstrom of middling fights in the final acts, and the conclusion is decidedly anticlimactic. (Its then franchise-low box-office haul also led New Line to Freddy’s “death” two years later.) But with such a deck stacked against it, The Dream Child still displays valiant defiance by focusing on Alice’s determination to discover her own bodily autonomy and authority amid a pregnancy to which so many other people lay bogus claims. If that’s not worth a modest shower gift of 2 ½ stars, what is?