Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 30 October 2006
Source New Line DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
It’s quite remarkable that, by the fourth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and with dozens of people dead, it still takes a little while to convince people that Freddy’s a legitimate threat. You have a bad dream about a guy with a glove, sustaining some curious injuries while sleeping, and the next thing you know, someone’s boyfriend is sprayed all over the ceiling of his room. And yet, try to explain this Krueger fellow to your friends or your parents, and they start thinking you’re crazy.
But you have to hand it to Renny Harlin. Though he’s unlikely to become the subject of anyone’s doctoral dissertation anytime soon, at least he’s smart enough not to take the assignment of a fourth sequel too seriously. He’s also game enough to grapple with the Nightmare saga with sufficient wit, crass commercialism, pop-cultural slavishness, and comic irreverence to produce what is either (or simultaneously?) the best and worst film in the series. As much as any of the sequels, Harlin’s film is a seemingly bottomless grab-bag from the ‘80s televisual subconscious, riffing on everything from Jaws to The Karate Kid to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, all with a palette of neon colors that even Joel Schumacher might think was in questionable taste.
The Dream Master picks up more or less where Dream Warriors left off, switching pop star Tuesday Knight for the prior film’s Patricia Arquette. The film retains (and somehow makes seem more preposterous) Kristen’s talent for team-dreaming, so when the oneirically deft young heroine starts to sense Freddy’s presence in her nightmares, she re-enlists the surviving dream warriors to help out. Naturally, they scoff. After all, Freddy’s been killed several times already, so logically he shouldn’t be coming back, right?
Well, a dog urinates fire, the earth shakes, and Freddy Krueger’s interred skeleton reconstitutes into the jolly child murderer we all know and love. Soon, Kristen’s friends are all sucked back into the Elm Street dreamworld, and Krueger even manipulates Kristen’s powers to drag in new victims. These include Alice, a spacey teenager with dream-powers of her own, who becomes the new heroine once Kristen is trapped into Freddy’s writhing chest cavity.
Set in an ethereal, MTV-scored paradise of 25-year-old high school students and a distinctly ‘80s form of ‘50s fetishism, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4’s depiction of the world of youth is as campy as that of Blue Velvet or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Harlin finds every excuse for gratuitous, highly visual touches of surrealism: a deadly water bed (cue “wet dream” joke); a pizza topped with tortured souls in lieu of meatballs; not one, but two very silly kung-fu battles with Freddy; and a burning razor-glove slash through a row of school lockers. With these touches, Harlin and future A-list screenwriter Brian Helgeland create a highly plastic pop culture universe in which everything — dreams and reality — is extremely fake, grotesque, and silly. This is compounded by a series of brazen gestures of self-reflexivity, including Robert Englund’s appearance in drag and a sequence in which Alice is sucked into a movie screen and is then forced to act out a time-wasting scenario again and again while her friend is being turned into a cockroach. This latter contrivance would almost seem to form the ur-text of similar scenes in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire if it weren’t so ludicrously staged.
Though patently silly, the film is certainly gory enough to offer some halfway decent chills, even if the deaths themselves seem relatively un-scary and low-risk. (Besides, how many surviving characters are likely to make it through the next movie?) But with an overstuffed frame and a relentless soundtrack featuring The Fat Boys, Billy Idol, and — you guessed it — Tuesday Knight herself, does the film really need to add genuine fear to the sensory overload?