Despite the fact that A Nightmare on Elm Street had been released in 1984, Freddy didn’t become a worldwide icon until a few years into the franchise, after it had gained enough exposure and grown some legs. While A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge had been the highest grossing horror film of 1985, it hadn’t compared as favorably to the original, which people were still only just discovering at the time. As the series went on, it only cemented Part 2’s place as an outlier, a totally different movie operating on a totally different set of rules. The third, Dream Warriors, was truly what allowed Elm Street to blossom as a franchise. It was a huge hit and became a fan-favorite fairly quickly. It went back to everything that made the first great, while also feeling bigger as a sequel would need to do in order to up the ante. It wasn’t just a horror film (though it was that, and a great one) it was an FX-driven thrill ride. An absolute bonanza of special effects and that was something—in addition to the central boogeyman—that fans really responded to.
On some level, everything that happened to Freddy in 1988, from the toys and games and costumes to the television show and extremely successful new sequel, is owed to the success of Dream Warriors. If that movie hadn’t worked as well as it did, none of those other things would have happened, at least not nearly as quickly. Even though Dream Warriors is by and large a more beloved sequel than its successor, The Dream Master, the latter sequel is still the highest grossing solo entry in the franchise, only outgrossed by Freddy vs. Jason. It’s more than likely that at least some of that box office is due to the fact that people were still riding the high of Dream Warriors, as it was released barely a year before.
After that third entry hit in 1987, everything changed for the franchise almost overnight. By 1988, there were sticker books, novelizations, comic books, yo-yos, dolls, costumes, and so much more. Freddy’s popularity skyrocketed and all of a sudden the series was in a very different place. Even the well-established Friday the 13th franchise had not experienced anything like this. Fans had begun to latch onto Freddy and that was a true testament to the character’s endearing qualities but also made furthering the franchise a little more difficult. After all, in the first three movies, Freddy had been fairly scary. There had been those little quips here and there, but the character was truly sinister and menacing. But how do you make a character scary when you see him everywhere you go? How are you going to be afraid of this guy when you see his face on a pack of gum or a Yo-Yo?
These things, more than any questions of even where to take the story next, seemed to fuel the direction of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Making Freddy the star stemmed out of not only the franchise’s mainstream success but the fact that Freddy, at that time, was becoming one of the biggest pop culture stars in the entire world. It only make sense for him to have more screen time, have more fun and even be a bit more accessible.
While these things are usually not great buzzwords to hear for a horror sequel, they’re honestly exactly why the movie works as well as it does. Director Renny Harlin, to his credit, immediately latched onto that, famously saying that he saw Freddy as the James Bond of horror villains and leaned into that, making Freddy someone who might be evil, might be the bad guy, but was nonetheless cool. Which is ridiculous, on one level, given Krueger’s backstory. On another level, it makes a lot of sense that this irredeemable monster would be as embraced as he became. Wes Craven himself even often pointed out that the toys and the Halloween costumes were a way of taking control over that fear. If you’re wearing it, spilling candy on it or decorating your home with it, it can’t make you afraid anymore.
Regardless, turning Freddy into the 007 of horror is exactly what Harlin did. Freddy’s never hiding in the shadows in The Dream Master. In fact, it’s the literal opposite, there’s a scene of Freddy on a beach wearing great big sunglasses and soaking up the sun and that if anything best represents the approach of this sequel compared to the first two. It’s literally just a lighter movie in every respect.
It almost works better now than it probably even did then, which is an interesting thing to note. The Dream Master might have been jarring coming right on the heels of Dream Warriors, considering the fact that it is such a tonally different feature. But there’s an allure to Dream Master now that stems from the sheer popularity of Freddy as a character at that point in time. This was a period in which Freddy was everywhere and this movie—even if it works accidentally and in retrospect—is a perfect celebration of that. It’s goofier and sillier than the previous one and can almost barely even be called a horror film. It’s as mainstream as Freddy could ever possibly get and that makes perfect sense for a time when you’d typically see Freddy’s face on at least two things in your local drug store.
Everything about Krueger as a character is amplified and exaggerated. This isn’t a surrealist nightmare in the way that parts of Dream Warriors had been. If anything, this speaks somewhat closer to teens of the era in that it is a pop nightmare. It’s a movie about all the pop culture you’ve ingested, the TV, the music videos, commercials, magazines, all of it, just being twisted and mutated and spat back in your face. It’s perfect, considering that Freddy himself was becoming just such a pop culture icon as well. Who better to do the spitting?
Because of this, the individual fears of the characters are much more base-level and not nearly as personal as they had been in Dream Warriors. While each of the new cast of characters have their own personalities and anxieties, they’re a far cry from Philip being afraid of falling back on suicidal tendencies, Taryn’s fear of reverting to her old drug habit or Will’s fear that he’ll be trapped in a chair for the rest of his life. Each of the new characters in Dream Master have immediately digestible characteristics. Sheila is brainy and has asthma so Freddy kills her by sucking the air out of her lungs. Debbie is afraid of cockroaches, so Freddy turns her into a giant cockroach and squishes her in a roach motel. Rick is into karate, so Freddy kills him with an admittedly lackluster martial arts sequence that he doesn’t actually show up for.
That’s not to say there’s no depth to these characters, either, only that their depth isn’t nearly as textual or probably as intentional as the characters in Dream Warriors. Debbie’s fear of cockroaches might be basic, but she’s also a character obsessed with body image—as so many teens were then and are now—and when she’s not working out, she’s thinking about working out. She is so focused on her body that her transformation into an insect, stripping away the muscles and skin she has worked so hard on, is most certainly a deeply personal fear that extends beyond simply being “she’s afraid of bugs.”
Still, these kills are not nearly as upsetting as the kills in Dream Warriors and I don’t think they’re supposed to be. Dream Master is not a movie that’s trying to make you sad or think about teenage suicide. Hell, Dream Master isn’t even a movie that’s trying to scare you. It’s a movie that just wants you to have fun, beginning to end. It takes the experience of playing with a Freddy Yo-Yo, adds a boatload of special FX and slams it up on the big screen, and the results are exactly as intended. It’s a louder movie than the entries before it, a more colorful movie and an altogether more poppy movie and that’s hardly a criticism when the whole film is deeply cemented in pop culture and—in particular—Freddy’s place within it.
That’s not to say that there are no complex or fleshed out characters in Dream Master, either. Even though not every character gets an arc in the same way they did in the previous, Dream Master if anything tries to provide a more singular focus by hinging all of its character work on a single protagonist. There may be just as many teens in this movie as there had been in the third, but it’s hardly a true ensemble cast. Alice Johnson is our heroine and she’s a great one. In the beginning, she plays almost second fiddle to Kristen. Even though she’s played by a different actress, we’re naturally expecting Kristen to be the heroine all over again, not just because she survived the last one but because she spends the first half hour of Dream Master really driving the plot. It’s an incredibly similar dynamic, on some levels, to the one shared between Tina and Nancy in the original Nightmare.
Alice doesn’t immediately strike one as heroine material because she’s a meek and quiet girl who kind of sticks to the background and doesn’t even really get that involved in the affairs of her circle of friends. She’s close with Rick and Kristen, but she’s a daydreamer (ha) and is picked on all the time by her verbally abusive dad which no doubt contributes to her overall shyness and inability to speak up in most situations. Alice doesn’t even like to look in the mirror. It’s not that she thinks she’s ugly, either, just that she doesn’t think there’s anything there to really look at.
Her transformation is remarkable, though. Even though Alice is being manipulated by Freddy, she fights back. She uses the power given to her by Kristen to pull new victims into her dreams, even though she doesn’t want to. But what’s so great about this little transition of power is that it passes through Freddy as well, thus giving her some of his power in addition to Kristen’s. Alice, like Freddy, gets stronger with each death, but she uses it against him. Instead of feeding off of that, Alice takes on the best qualities of her fallen friends. It’s a metaphor for grief, on one level, as she allows that to strengthen her each time. More than anything, though, it’s a story of a girl coming into her own even as she loses her entire support system—in that respect, it’s almost the total inverse of Dream Warriors—by allowing the strength and love of her fallen friends to flow into her and discovering her own sense of confidence and self-worth at the same time. She goes from effectively being a shy wallflower to a full-blown superhero in the span of 90 minutes, but it’s a mostly believable journey and definitely one of the best things about the movie as a whole.
Alice’s arc also provides a perfect counterbalance to Freddy’s representation as a pop culture demon in Dream Master. Every other character has something they latch onto, be it music, soap operas, gadgets, sports, karate, they have something. Joey very symbolically dies watching MTV, Debbie can’t get enough of Dynasty. Alice doesn’t have any of that and there’s nothing that Pop Freddy can use on her. This is the one protagonist where Freddy doesn’t just fail to kill her, but he never even really has the upper hand.
Dream Master is very much an Elm Street sequel by way of Renny Harlin, it’s a big, exciting, colorful, sleek ride of a film. Even though it contains the deaths of characters we’ve come to love and even the protagonist’s brother, it’s a much lighter Nightmare than everything that had come before. It is exactly what Freddy Mania was at its peak—Freddy as the star, Freddy as a trickster, a prankster whose tricks just happen to be fatal, an entertainer who could not only take the form of your own fears but of anything in the toy aisle as well—and perfectly projects all of that onto the big screen.
There’s been a rediscovery of the movie happening lately. And even though it’s not my favorite in the franchise, that’s great to see. It deserves it and now is the perfect time for it. Our current age of ‘80s nostalgia would absolutely be missing something without a strong dose of Nightmare on Elm Street 4 nostalgia. It is a celebration of everything we love about that decade while, at the same time, twisting and inverting that much beloved ‘80s pop culture into something that’s at least a little sinister and dangerous. Not much, mind you. It’s not grisly. It’s not mean. Because in the short span of a year between Dream Warriors and Dream Master, Freddy had stopped simply belonging to horror fans had started to belong to everyone. This was the first entry your kids might rent and not have nightmares about, because even though you’d find it categorized in the horror section, it was jut as much of an action movie, a fantasy movie, a comedy and a superhero movie all at once. More than all of that, though, more than anything, it is still in some ways the pure distilled essence of a Freddy movie.