Thursday, October 16, 2014

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

Day 4 of Nightmare Week, and the downward spiral begins... but fortunately, we're still near the top of the slide.

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

Rated R

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is the MTV version of Nightmare. The film is slick and well-made on a technical level, with stylish cinematography, creative kills backed with great special effects, a very cool lead in Lisa Wilcox's Alice, and a hip soundtrack of late '80s rock and hip-hop. It's easy to see why this film was the series' peak in terms of box-office success, as it's practically tailor-made for mainstream appeal. Unfortunately, it loses the spark that the original and Dream Warriors had, with some terminal dialogue and a number of big plot holes, and overall, it's just not a particularly scary film. Still, given the general fan consensus that there were only three good Nightmare movies and that this not only wasn't one of them, but marked the exact moment when the series started going to hell, I was pleasantly surprised by The Dream Master. You can see the problems building on the horizon like a giant Oklahoma thunderstorm, but for the time being, you can still enjoy what the film does right and have a good time.

Following on from Dream Warriors, The Dream Master has Kristen, Joey, and Kincaid, the survivors of that film, back in high school and moving on with their lives... until Kristen starts having those dreams again. The three are picked off one by one, but before she dies, Kristen is able to transfer her powers to her best friend in high school, a shy waitress named Alice who has a habit of daydreaming. Unfortunately, this only plays right into Freddy's hands, as he uses Alice and her powers to drag her friends and her brother into his nightmare world one by one. Oh, and for reasons that are never explained, Alice picks up her friends' dream powers as they die, eventually turning her into a superpowered badass who can fight Freddy head-to-head. This doesn't really make a lot of sense, but it does give us a great finale where Alice kicks Freddy's ass.

I said in my review of Dream Warriors that Kristen from that film was like an early version of Buffy Summers, but the third act of this film is like watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in embryo. Between Alice's acrobatic action and both her and Freddy dropping one-liners, it was that same mix of horror, action, and comedy, only with an R rating and much more gore. It helped that I loved Lisa Wilcox's performance as Alice, as she grew from a meek girl next door into a heroine, taking some terrible lines and giving them real conviction. Had the film focused more on Alice right from the outset rather than using Kristen as a decoy protagonist for the first act, I probably would've been more sold on the story.

Unfortunately, the first half of the film is replete with terrible dialogue and a subpar performance from our false leading lady. Kristen has been recast since the last film, with Patricia Arquette replaced with a Debbie Gibson wannabe named Tuesday Knight (who also sang the theme song, and who I swear looks an awful lot like Taylor Swift). While she looked the part, she didn't have the chops to pull off the role, too often overselling her lines. The other two returning dream warriors are barely in the film before they're killed off, and while the rest of the cast is serviceable, none of them stood out like Wilcox did. (Though I did appreciate the fact that the black girl wound up being the nerd for once.) And the writing... man, this film has seriously lowered my standards for "teen" dialogue, because the characters here are some of the most ridiculous-sounding teenagers I've ever seen in a mainstream film. If the writers thought that that was how the "kids these days" speak, then they failed horribly. Even today it sounded like a parody of '80s teen slang; I can't imagine how it would've sounded back when the film was fresh. Fortunately, Robert Englund once more saves the day as Freddy Krueger. His lines aren't nearly as quotable as they were in the last film, but he still brings the same gleefully sadistic menace, and while he's clearly starting to slide into his more overtly comic persona, the bad jokes are still bearable.

Director Renny Harlin shoots the film like a music video, which both helps and hurts it. On one hand, it was never boring to watch; something is always happening on screen, and the set design gets very creative. as do the kills. I especially loved the setup for Debbie's death, with Alice and her boyfriend trying to get to her but finding themselves stuck in a time loop before realizing that they're still dreaming, while Debbie herself gets exterminated in an extremely grotesque, body horror-filled manner. Every film so far has had at least one standout kill, and for The Dream Master, that was the kill that made me applaud in awe. The special effects department did an excellent job here, with effects that still look absolutely real even today. Unfortunately, the film's stylistic gloss also sucks out much of the tension in too many scenes. It was the same problem I had with Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty -- Renny Harlin's cinematic style works for an action film (and indeed, he did become most famous as an action director), but it's not good at conveying horror. While I was often grossed out watching this film, there were remarkably few times when I was actually scared.

Score: 3 out of 5

With the fourth Nightmare film, you can tell that the series has passed its peak creatively and has nowhere to go but down, but it's still good enough to work as a bloody, crowd-pleasing slasher flick.

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