Monday, September 30, 2019

Awesomely Shitty Movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 - The Dream Master

Welcome to another Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at Enuffa.com, where I pick apart the finer and lesser points of a piece of escapist cinematic entertainment and usually end up pissing someone off.  Following up our last installment about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, let's take a look at its sequel, the Renny Harlin-directed romp, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master!


Nightmare 4 is the only episode of this series I saw in the movie theater, it having been released just before my thirteenth birthday.  I was old enough to convince my mom to take me to see it, and surprisingly she was pretty entertained by it.  My initial take was, "best of the series."  I loved the mix of horror and humor, I loved the idea of Freddy meeting his match in the dream-superpowered Alice, I loved the stylized look and special effects.  This film was everything a thirteen-year-old Freddy fan could want.

The fourth film in the series picks up a year after Nightmare 3.  The three survivors from that movie, Kristen, Joey and Kincaid, have been released from their group home and are back in high school, seemingly having moved past their shared trauma.  But Kristen begins dreaming once again about Freddy's house and boiler room and is convinced he's returning.  Joey and Kincaid don't agree, and begin to resent her for continuing to pull them into her dream.  Of course Freddy does return after being resurrected when Kincaid's dog pees on his grave, and he swiftly gets revenge on the last three Elm Street children.  But before her death, Kristen bequeaths her dream gifts onto her friend Alice, whom Freddy uses to pull other kids into her nightmares so he can continue killing.  Alice then must absorb the personality traits of all her friends and become a Dream Master so she can go toe-to-toe with everyone's favorite burned dream murderer.

By this point in the series things had become quite outlandish and comic booky, with Freddy's exploits leaning more toward dark comedy than pure horror.  This film doesn't quite veer into camp, but it definitely completed a four-film tonal shift from the original, before the fifth film returned to a darker feel.  On one hand you have to respect Renny Harlin's gleefully cartoonish take on this material, on the other hand you do miss Freddy being actually scary.  Let's take a look at what holds up and what doesn't, about Nightmare 4....


For our ASM article about Nightmare 3, click HERE



The Awesome


Alice

Probably the best thing about Nightmare 4 is the newly introduced character of Alice Johnson, in a dynamic, robust performance by Lisa Wilcox.  Unlike most horror protagonists she's given a real dramatic arc, going from mousy and awkward to confident and resilient, as she assimilates her friends' abilities after they die.  Alice is the daughter of a widowed, domineering, alcoholic father, who's trampled on her for so long she's all but retreated into herself (One nice touch is the use of Alice's mirror - she has it completely covered with photos of her friends because she doesn't like to look at herself, but at the end she takes all the photos down and embraces who she is).  But throughout the movie she keeps gaining strength, standing up to both her father and Freddy (metaphors, man).  This arc actually feels very relevant in 2019 and I couldn't help noticing how ahead of its time it was.  While the choice to totally shift to a new main character was jarring, they found in Alice a very relatable character with some nice dramatic substance to explore.  Her growth into the moniker of Dream Master also put Freddy on the defensive for the first time in the series, and Alice went on to be the only protagonist to survive two films.  As Sandra Bullock so eloquently quipped in Demolition Man, "He's really matched his meet.  You really licked his ass."

You go get him, Alice!




Nice Kids

One thing I found really refreshing about Nightmare 4 is the fact that the group of kids (with whom we actually get to spend some real time before everything goes to shit, unlike in Nightmare 3), despite being very different social types (Alice is a shy doormat, Rick is athletic martial arts enthusiast, Debbie is a fitness freak rocker chick, Dan is a football star, Sheila is an asthmatic science nerd), they all genuinely like each other.  There's no stereotypical high school bullying or cliques in this movie.  While that might not be the most realistic approach, it's something different for a movie about teenagers and since they're all likable we care what happens to them.  Nice people are more fun to spend time with.

The kids are alright.  In this movie.




Direction

Where Nightmare 3 was directed by a first-timer without much confidence or visual pinache, Finnish director Renny Harlin had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do, and a keen eye for dramatic, unique visuals.  He's really more suited as an action director, as his later work in Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight would illustrate.  But his unconventional approach allowed Nightmare 4 to look and feel different from its three predecessors, giving the film a sense of kinetic visual excitement Nightmare 3 lacked, and taking the comic booky aspect of Dream Warriors to the next level.  Harlin also contributed to last-minute script changes, as the film was produced during the 1988 Writer's Strike; considering the scrambling most of it turned out pretty well. 




Effects

Like Nightmare 3, the special effects here look great, even more polished thanks to a considerably bigger budget ($13 million compared to $5 million).  Freddy's resurrection is one of the film's highlights, as his skeleton literally grows muscle and flesh before our very eyes (think Toht's melting face in Raiders of the Lost Ark but played in reverse).  Another is the nod to David Cronenberg's The Fly, when Debbie's human form molts off her body and she turns into a cockroach.  Still another is Freddy's ultimate demeez, when the faces and hands of the children he's murdered reach out of his body and begin tearing him apart from the inside.  These are all fantastically well-executed effects that further add to the series' pedigree.





Dream Sequences

Along those same lines, the dream sequences are creative once again.  I'd say Nightmare 3's nightmares were overall more imaginative, but this stuff is nothing to sneeze at either.  The three aforementioned moments are all great, as is Alice's scene in the old-time movie theater where she gets pulled across the auditorium and into the screen.  There's also Sheila's death scene, where Freddy literally sucks all the air out of her body, and Joey's death, wherein the sexy model from one of his posters transports into his water bed before morphing into Freddy and pulling him under, after which Joey's mother then finds him drowned inside the waterbed.  So while the Freddy scenes aren't quite as neat as in the previous film, they're still pretty creative and fantastical.  The one real miss is Rick's karate-themed death, where he has to fistfight an invisible Freddy (a last-minute change from an elaborate elevator sequence which was cut for budgetary reasons).  But they can't all be good, can they?

Freddy doing his impression of a Dyson....




Robert Englund

As with every good Nightmare movie, Robert Englund is one of the reasons this one works.  The role of Englund's career, in this film almost bordering on anti-hero, is the claw-wielding maniac with the burned-up face.  The screenwriters veered a little too far into Arnold-esque bad comedy in this film - Freddy's dropping bad jokes like an unfunny dad this time - but Englund as always brings it to life with a mix of menace and levity.  Oh, and unlike in Part 1 and 3 his vocal timbre is consistent throughout!

Dat's a spicy meat-a-ball.


Alright I've said enough nice things.  Time to complain about some shit....




The Shitty


Tuesday Knight

Sorely missing from this film is Patricia Arquette as Kristen Parker.  Arquette was offered a handsome salary to reprise her role as the main protagonist from Nightmare 3, but turned it down because she wanted to avoid being typecast in horror roles.  Unfortunately she was hastily replaced by an actress who looked, sounded and talked nothing like her, in Tuesday Knight.  Knight's performance isn't so much bad (though she has some amateurish moments) as it is distracting.  Never once did my brain accept her as the same person Arquette played.  She was just some other teenager with the same color hair and the same friends.  Recasting a major character is tough; if you're gonna do it you have to make sure the performances match, and this one doesn't.

Who the hell are you and what did you do with Kristen??




Soft Reboot

One thing I've never been a fan of in sequels is when a character (or in this case three) survives a horrific ordeal in one film only to be neatly and efficiently killed off early in the next (see Alien 3).  It strikes me as near retconning; why did we watch Kristen, Joey and Kincaid muscle through Nightmare 3 if they'd all be dead in the first thirty minutes of this movie?  The first act of this film too often feels like we're rushing to get the old characters out of the way so we can get to Alice.  I get that we needed to transition to a new main character, but couldn't it have been handled more gracefully?  Or couldn't Lisa Wilcox simply have been cast as Kristen and gone through the same arc Alice did?  What if Kristen is now mousy and shy after spending months at a psychiatric ward and nearly being killed by a dream boogeyman?  And then her last two friends from that ordeal die, along with the new friends she's made, and she's forced to grow from Dream Warrior into Dream Master (They could even have her absorb the other Dream Warriors' powers like she takes on the traits of her new friends)?  Wouldn't that have worked just as well?  She'd still have the power to pull other people into her dream and inadvertently expose the new characters to Freddy's shenanigans, right?  Then it wouldn't feel so much like the producers were just starting over with this franchise and it would tie more closely into the events of Nightmare 3.




One-Liners

I mentioned earlier that Freddy was rewritten here as a pun and slogan machine, and unfortunately his penchant for lame jokes undermines his value as a horror villain.  It was Renny Harlin's mindset that after three films audiences wouldn't be scared of Freddy anymore, and in fact they'd sort of be rooting for him because he's such an entertaining character.  But I think they took that philosophy a bit too far in giving him a cheeseball one-liner every time he murders someone.  Some of them are Schwarzenegger in The Running Man-bad.  Just before Freddy kills Kristen and dares her to bring a friend into her dream - "Why don't you reach out and cut someone?"  When he meets Alice for the first time - "How sweet. Fresh meat."  When he shows up in Debbie's basement as she's lifting weights - "No pain, no gain."  When he traps Debbie in the roach motel - "You can check in but you can't check out."  When he confronts Alice in the diner - "If the food don't kill ya, the service will."  It's too much, jokester, tone it down.     




Freddy's Downfall

As I said before, it was very cool to finally see Freddy tangle with someone who could go toe-to-toe with him.  However I feel like Alice had it too easy.  They have a brief physical tussle, Freddy gets the upper hand, and then Alice remembers the Dream Master rhyme about evil seeing itself and dying, grabs a broken piece of stained glass window, and shows Freddy his reflection.  This causes the souls of all the children he's killed to rip him apart from the inside.  As I mentioned, I liked the effect of the arms pulling out of him, a very cool visual, but it felt like Alice arrived at this solution too quickly, and the idea of showing evil its own reflection is never built up to.  This rule is just introduced at the last minute.  Just seemed like this moment could've felt more earned.

Freddy's soul inbox is full....




Nitpicks

-As cool as Freddy's resurrection sequence is, something about it doesn't make any sense.  At the end of Nightmare 3 Freddy's physical remains are physically buried in a physically-consecrated grave, causing the nightmare version of Freddy to disintegrate.  But then in this movie Kincaid falls asleep and in the dream finds himself in the junkyard where Freddy's buried, and his dog Jason (hardy-har) pees on Freddy's grave, which resurrects him.  Umm, if Freddy's bones are buried in the real world, shouldn’t the dog peeing on the grave have to happen in the real world for Freddy to come back?  He's still buried in hallowed ground in real life, right?

-Did Kristen and her mom move to a new house in the last year?  Her room doesn't look a thing like it did in the previous movie.

-Wow Kristen’s mom is an insensitive bitch huh?  At dinner Kristen isn't eating and her mom goes "Something the matter with the cuisine?"  Kristen replies "When two of your friends die in the same day, let me know what it does to your appetite," and mom goes "You're just tired."  Really ma?  Literally every friend this girl has ever had is dead, and your response is to tell her she's just tired?  Know your audience, ya douche.  Under the circumstances I think Kristen's holding it together like a fuckin' miracle.

-The classrooms in this film are lit like a film noir.  I ain't never been in a classroom like that.  Do they allow smoking and crooked fedoras in this school?

-Debbie's death scene is one of the best in the movie, but there's just one problem.  Debbie isn't asleep when Freddy shows up - she's working out.  So how does anything in this scene even happen?  Did Debbie fall asleep mid-rep?

Who falls asleep while weightlifting?

-Near the end of the film Alice and Dan go after Freddy in Dan's truck, and Alice rams him.  But it turns out that was just in the dream, and in the real world they collided full-speed with a tree.  Dan is rushed to the hospital but somehow Alice is totally fine.  Umm, they'd both be fuckin' vegetables after that crash with no airbags.

-Anyone catch the references to Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow or James Cameron's Aliens?  Freddy's first line after being resurrected is "You shouldn't have let them bury me, I'm not dead," and late in the movie Alice says to Freddy "Get away from her, you son of a bitch!"  Not a nitpick, just a nice pair of Easter eggs.



Conclusion

The first four movies in this series are hard for me to rank definitively.  I like aspects of all of them but parts of each don't hold up so well in retrospect.  If you took the best bits of each film you'd have a damn near perfect Nightmare movie.  But I guess that's what's so fascinating about this series - every film is different.  Like the Alien movies, each director put his own stamp on the material, and since Freddy is a surrealist villain the rules are whatever you make them.  Nightmare 4 is the film that made Freddy almost an action-adventure villain, tossing out one-liners and relishing his own evil.  Renny Harlin's kinetic signature style is handled with such unapologetic confidence it's easy to get wrapped up in it and overlook the elements that don't work so well.  This film is a horror comic book, not scary but exhilarating, and features maybe the most interesting lead protagonist of the series.  Alice is a unique invention in the pantheon of slasher films, a young woman who goes from mousy pushover to badass hero, defeating the demon all on her own and getting the hot, popular jock at the end.  If nothing else you have to respect how ahead of its time this film is.


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