When you commit to watching each installment of a series as a recurring tradition, regardless of quality, you get a little concerned about the possibility of it being a big mistake. Every year, I watch at least one Halloween film and one Nightmare on Elm Street film during the month of October. Every Friday the 13th, a Friday the 13th film. (Incidentally, in order to watch Freddy vs. Jason on Friday, October 13th, 2017, I’m going to have to double up on Freddy Krueger next year.) And sometimes I’ve gotten burned on that deal. Halloween III, I felt burned by. Friday the 13th has burned me a few times now. And of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 wound up on the negative side of the ledger.
So there’s always a bit of trepidation here that has nothing to do with the “scary movie” aspect of the franchises. Fortunately, part 4 of the Elm Street story is — despite some significant issues — still a mostly positive experience.
There are worse things to be watching.
The story in The Dream Master picks up a few years after the events of part 3 — maintaining that continuity that was mostly discarded from the second film. By doing so, it builds the sense that this is an ongoing saga rather than just a series of unrelated killings; unlike Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger isn’t just a random serial killer, he has specific targets in mind. The threat to the teenagers is more personal. This is reinforced with the return of a few of the Dream Warriors characters, with Ken Sagoes and Rodney Eastman reprising their roles, and with Tuesday Knight making her film debut replacing Patricia Arquette as Kristen, the leader of the previous film’s heroes. Of course, with Freddy on the prowl again, we all know that people who have vanquished him before are the most at risk, and there are a few new characters brought in to carry on the fight. Of particular note are Danny Hassel and Lisa Wilcox. Danny Hassel plays Dan, who has moved to the area in the last couple years and serves as the audience surrogate, the guy who has to have the whole Elm Street lore explained to him — just in case there’s anybody jumping into the series starting with Part 4.
Lisa Wilcox plays Alice, who has a copy of Kristen’s ability to pull people into her dreams, although with a few twists. As she watches her friends die but learns skills from them, there’s an interesting transformation that gradually takes place. Initially, she’s very much a shy wallflower character, and over the course of the film she gains more confidence in herself. Pretty standard fare, really. But it works because Wilcox does a better-than-expected acting job for a teen horror film. Unlike some films which would use make-up to parallel Alice’s personal growth with an increase in artificial attractiveness, here it’s almost entirely a matter of posture; she’s a pretty girl regardless, but we see her confidence develop as she carries herself differently and doesn’t hide herself as much. (Although there is a fairly ham-fisted display with her covered-up mirror.)
The director’s chair has once again switched occupants, and Renny Harlin puts together a solid piece of visual storytelling. Freddy Krueger’s kills are inventive and genuinely creepy. The film does lack some of the subtlety in the transitions between dream and reality that the first and third films possessed, but it still successfully leans on common dream motifs to build its adventure. The deja vu sequence is particularly well done because even the audience will wonder if they’ve missed something — if only for a second rather than the several minutes it takes the characters. Robert Englund of course has the persona of Freddy Krueger down pat at this point, and is menacing even as he spouts some terrible puns. (I could be mistaken, but it seems like his punnery is amped up considerably in this film.)
I found the film to be on the cusp of a three-star or four-star rating for me. Ultimately, it came down to a few significant issues with the film. First, it shares with Dream Warriors a basic problem in that it introduces concepts that it doesn’t do much with. Again, there’s lip-service paid to the notion of the kids having dream powers, and again it doesn’t amount to much in practical terms. And there’s some dream theory that is mentioned but in vague enough terms that it doesn’t really feel like it was attached well to the narrative. As the ending relies on a piece of this quasi-theology that wasn’t mentioned before, it comes across as pretty cheesy. Coupled with the extreme cheesiness of how Freddy makes his return in this installment, and I can’t quite give this put this over the middle mark. But it’s a high three, rather than a low three. While it’s not a great film, it’s still one that wouldn’t cause viewers any regret while watching an Elm Street marathon.