Saturday, November 1, 2014

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

As you may have realized, the whole horrifying project of wasting my life on slasher sequels hasn’t finished by Halloween. Because I really need to watch a decent film from time to time, the rest of the series will continue sporadically during the next month or so.

The lives of Kristen (now played by one Tuesday Knight, who wins the stage name competition) and the other surviving Dream Warriors from the last movie have returned to their normal teenage lifestyles again, and at least in Kristen’s case to her old cliché group of friends, the black nerd girl, the tough chick, the male love interest, the male love interest for the final girl and the very obvious final girl Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox).

Alas, lately Kristen has begun dreaming of Freddy’s house on Elm Street again, dragging her dream warring buddies in with her, without Freddy ever actually appearing. That is, until Roland (Ken Sagoes) dreams of his dog pissing fire on Freddy’s grave. During the course of the following fifteen movie minutes or so, all of Freddy’s old enemies are dead, Alice has acquired Kristen’s dream powers, and Freddy starts using said dream powers to get at new victims, because – apparently we’re supposed to ignore film number two again, hooray – he can on paper only kill the original Elm Street kids, which doesn’t go for people he meets through Alice’s dreams, even though she isn’t one of the Elm Street kids, because…umm, no idea.

Anyway, shy and rather wimpy Alice acquires additional powers with each friendly soul Freddy sucks up in the ensuing killing spree, so our sartorially impaired undead serial killer might just bring about the means of his own destruction – if Alice ever gets around to striking back, that is.

Remember how I praised Dream Warriors for building on the first Nightmare movie’s foundations, broadening the mythology, and so on? Turns out, the earlier film’s virtues are a bit bigger than that, for Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master takes a comparable approach but does succeed with it far less. Sometimes, and I am pretty sure this is one of these cases, it’s all in the execution.

Just take the sampling of clichés Freddy slaughters in this movie and compare it with Kristen’s friends in the one before. Both groups of kids are painted in the broadest strokes, yet where the earlier film uses exactly the right strokes to give us some basically believable kids we might even not want to see die, Harlin’s movie just puts up the blandest of slasher meat troupes, giving everyone a single identifiable mark that doesn’t seem to be meant to make them interesting to watch interacting but that’s only there to set up one of the film’s “ironic” (if irony is a sledgehammer) death scenes.

And in these scenes lies another problem, because with this film, the killings have lost all terror and are only ever meant as visual gags, Freddy now finally having turned into the ugly guy in the stupid outfit who never fucking stops making bad one-liners, the film’s sympathy in these scenes shifting completely to him whenever he isn’t fighting the final girl. Needless to say, I’m more than a bit uncomfortable with that, and not in the good way I want to be made uncomfortable by through horror. The film’s lack of empathy with its own characters weakens its impact as a horror movie decisively, for if the film I’m watching can’t be bothered to feel for its own characters, why should I as a viewer do, and why should I be afraid for them or disturbed or shocked by what happens to them? The same goes for Freddy, who loses all of his menace this way.

Of course, as a revue of pretty great special effects and surreal ideas, there is fun to be had with the kill scenes but it’s an approach to horror film I find rather alienating and just not that interesting to watch.

These problems are certainly exacerbated by the film’s somewhat lazy seeming script, where not even the mandatory revival of its bad guy is prepared with any sort of care and thought. So, Freddy returns because a dream dog pisses fire on his grave, presumably to counter the effect of the holy water applied in the real world in the last film? How could anybody involved think that’s a good idea, or really, any idea at all? And that’s not a one-off: little of the film’s mythological background is thought through at all, with many an opportunity for meaningful connection of single parts wasted because – I couldn’t help but feel – the writers just couldn’t be bothered to think about the implications of things like Freddy’s connection to the Elm Street kids, Alice’s new role as Dream Master, and so on and so forth. I have difficulty reading it as anything else than the film, as franchise horror loves to do, just declaring its audience to be only interested in the kills and therefore putting little to no effort into anything else. Which – surprise! – just might attract only the part of the audience that really is only interested in the kills.

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