Nightmare Week: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master' (1988)
With A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Freddy Krueger completed his transformation from shadowy, menacing villain to full-on cartoon character, a pop-culture icon who showed up in music videos and would soon be the Crypt Keeper-like host of his own horror anthology series, Freddy's Nightmares. Anything scary or disturbing about Freddy has completely disappeared by this movie, and it's clear that the character's fame has gone to the filmmakers' and his portrayer's heads (actor Robert Englund gets sole above-the-title billing in the credits). Whereas the Freddy of the first movie spoke only sparingly, the Freddy of The Dream Master is quite chatty, quick with his groan-worthy puns and one-liners (which don't even have the nasty, sarcastic edge that they did in the previous movies). On top of that, his kills are all ridiculously elaborate, more like funhouse rides than gruesome or scary deaths. Freddy has become a victim of his own success.
Taking place not long after Dream Warriors, The Dream Master sets about undoing whatever was satisfying about that movie's resolution, with the three living teen characters (Joey, played by Rodney Eastman; Kincaid, played by Ken Sagoes; and Kristen, now played by Tuesday Knight since Patricia Arquette probably got too famous for this shit) showing up only to fairly quickly get killed by a resurrected Freddy. Kristen sticks around the longest, but her main function is to pass along her power to bring others into her dream (a minor element of Dream Warriors that is heavily played up in this movie) to her friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox), who's the movie's real protagonist. There's no coherent reason for Freddy's return, even though director Renny Harlin and the screenwriters (including Brian Helgeland) specifically reference his previous burial in consecrated ground. The scene in which he comes back to life sets the tone for the unmotivated silliness to come, with Kincaid's dog (named Jason, ha ha) pissing fire to somehow open up Freddy's grave.
The Dream Master is the most slasher-like of the Nightmare movies so far, with Freddy quickly dispatching a series of vapid teenagers. It has the highest body count of the series to date, and each kill is an excuse for Freddy to engage in increasingly absurd methods of murder. He turns victims into pizza toppings and one into a cockroach. He dresses in drag as a nurse and turns his glove into a shark fin, Jaws-style. None of it is scary, and the best it can manage is to gross the audience out. Most of it is just laughable, which probably entertained audiences at the time (The Dream Master was the highest-grossing movie in the original series), but betrays the dark vision that Wes Craven had for Freddy in the first place.
As is common for later entries in horror series, The Dream Master also tries to build up a bit of mythology around Freddy; although it doesn't follow up on Dream Warriors' revelations about Freddy's mother, it does come up with a sort of half-formed idea about "dream gates," good and evil portals in dreams, of which Freddy is apparently the guardian of the evil one. Alice, in her capacity as the dream master, is able to absorb the strengths and talents of her friends who get killed, and she becomes the avatar of the good dream gate when she vanquishes Freddy and releases the souls of the people he's killed. Or something like that -- it's not very clear, and like the forced mythologies that crop up in other horror sequels, it'll likely end up getting ignored or replaced. Everything important about Freddy was established in his first appearance, and the more the movies add to him, the more they dilute his power.