After striking out with their first sequel, New Line scored with Chuck Russell’s fx driven A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). For a franchise that had been on the brink of death, things were suddenly looking up in Dreamland. Unlike Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Dream Warriors had been a huge hit; though not quite as effective as the original Nightmare, Dream Warriors proved to be a success in its own right. Chuck Russell’s film was more of a teen fantasy-adventure than a straight slasher film. A hit single from hair metal band Dokken called “Dream Warriors” also helped ensure the film’s success with teens. Overall, Dream Warriors presented a less grisly, more audience-friendly version of Freddy Krueger.
It wasn’t as if Robert Englund was suddenly Pat Boone though. Dream Warriors smartly held back most of the gloved killer’s screen time until the final act of the movie; then, they let the monster completely out of the box. This was a risky move but Freddy Krueger—as played by Robert Englund—is full of wit, personality, and charisma. He’s also an undead serial killer possessed by demons from Hell, so naturally the kids loved him. It wasn’t long after the 3rd Nightmare was released another sequel was greenlit. This time, franchise producer Robert Shaye and New Line decided to focus even less on the horror and more on the fun elements that made Dream Warriors a success. One of the biggest changes would be injecting a lot of humor into Freddy Krueger, a decision that would change the franchise forever.
By the time A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master (1988) was released, New Line had decided to not follow Wes Craven’s idea for a 4th film—which involved time traveling and jumping from dream to dream. It sounded complicated and heady to producers Robert Shaye and Sara Risher; the studio wanted something funny. They realized that the audience was no longer rooting for the teenagers in these films; they were rooting for Freddy. Kids were sitting in the dark, laughing and cheering on a dream-invading serial killer. Who would have thought?
So what do you do with that? Dream Warriors had already taken the series in a more fan-friendly direction and New Line wanted a fun, action-filled film that teenagers would go see. Finnish director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) delivered; he saw Freddy Krueger as the James Bond of the franchise. That may be a bit of a stretch, but Harlin really understood and shared New Line’s vision of amping up the silliness and making Freddy Krueger the star of the show. He got that the audience was there rooting for the predator and not the prey. Outdoing the initial terror of Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t work, so why even try; New Line was going to go where the box office pied piper was leading them.
There was a writers’ guild strike during the making of The Dream Master. Reny Harlin really deserves a lot of credit for delivering such a cohesive product; the film has often been referred to as “The MTV Nightmare.” It’s important to remember the actors were forced to write dialogue during the day of filming (Rick and Alice’s conversation after Kristen’s funeral) on the fly and Harlin was creating kill sequences and adding new scenes as filming went along. Due to the writers’ strike, more material was made up on the spot and it took New Line a long time to admit it; if it worked, film it and move on was the mantra. The studio’s desire to set up a lasting franchise combined with the writer’s strike made them realize that they had all the gold that they needed in Freddy Krueger himself.
The Dream Master wasn’t supposed to be taken as seriously as previous Nightmare films. The Dream Master placed a firm emphasis on fun. Krueger broke the fourth wall and laughed with the audience—taunting and grossing out the more squeamish members in the process. It’s hard to picture the original Wes Craven iteration of Freddy Krueger ever putting on a pair of sunglasses to mug for the camera, but it works in The Dream Master. Krueger was no longer menacing in any way; he was more like an edgy radio shock jock. The kill scenes were all over the top and played for laughs throughout. Suddenly, everything out of Krueger’s mouth was a one-liner or a pun.
The Dream Master never really justified itself in any artistic way from the start. Kristen (Tuesday Knight) and the surviving “dream warriors” from the previous film are dispatched quickly one by one. Freddy Krueger comes back by…Kincaid’s dog pissing hellfire on his bones in the Dream Warriors junkyard? It’s that kind of sequel.
Things are noticeably different the moment Krueger puts on those sunglasses though. With a devilish grin, he steps on the beach and throws the shades on before pushing Kristen’s head down into the sand. This was a new Freddy Krueger—this Krueger was all about showmanship. He loved to kill, but he also loved a good joke at someone else’s expense. As the glove/fin cut through the water parodying Jaws, it was clear this was the arrival of a totally different type of character.
Freddy Krueger became a master of the one-liner in The Dream Master. (“Why don’t you reach out and touch someone” is a personal favorite.) The production design mirrored the change in tone; everything does look like a music video. Freddy’s boiler room is lit with green neons. There’s no more hiding in the shadows; Krueger craves the spotlight. Everything in The Dream Master has a more grandiose feel than any of the previous Nightmare films and Englund’s performance is right at the center of that grandiosity.
Just compare the two classroom scenes from the original Nightmare on Elm Street and The Dream Master. Whereas the original Craven film uses the scene to not only scare with Tina luring Nancy to Freddy’s boiler room, but it also sums up the whole idea cribbed from Shakespeare that there is simply rot in all things and that rot is Freddy Krueger personified.
The classroom scene in The Dream Master is all about how cool Freddy is. Sheila (Toy Newkirk) falls asleep in class and Freddy is seated as the teacher, legs propped up as he slowly peels open an apple with his razor glove. He slowly struts like Jerry Lee Lewis by way of Charles Manson down the aisles and delivers yet another pun before adding Sheila to his body count (wanna suck face?). It’s a lesson in showmanship; there’s everything but a spotlight on him. This was the ‘Freddy Show’…and audiences ate it up.
The spectacle of the kill scenes were just as integral to the Freddy Show’s success in The Dream Master and made audiences think Krueger that much cooler. The death scenes in Wes Craven’s original seem quaint compared to every single kill in The Dream Master; Rick (Andras Jonas) is final girl Alice (Lisa Wilcox)’s brother and Kristen (Tuesday Knight)’s, boyfriend. His death scene is a perfect example of the recipe for success in The Dream Master (and subsequent sequels).
Freddy Krueger’s newfound flair for showmanship in plotting out his victims’ dream kills was key. The possibilities for what the circus of the Dreamworld could be were endless, as long as everyone understood Freddy always won in the end. Rick falls asleep in class and finds himself waking up in the bathroom surrounded by cheerleaders—pom poms in hand—cheering him on. He walks out of the bathroom and Kristen (who is already dead) appears, coming on to him; she turns around to face him and is badly burned, unlike her reflection. Rick runs away into an elevator and Freddy sends it spiraling down fast. At the bottom, he is suddenly in a dojo and has a karate match with an invisible Krueger. The entire sequence is ridiculously over the top and has a fun-house carnival vibe. Why a karate dojo? Rick loves to do karate to take out his frustrations, so Krueger will use this against him in the most ham-fisted of ways (and The Karate Kid was an extremely popular franchise at the time with teens). Variations on this would play over and over throughout the remainder of the entire franchise, but the tone was set firmly in place here in The Dream Master.
The film took where Dream Warriors ended up in its third act and made an entire movie that felt that way. Renny Harlin was keen on what brought teens with disposable income to the movies. In 1988 in America, MTV was the king of cool. Harlin, therefore, doubled down on the rock n roll feel of Dream Warriors, splitting The Dream Master‘s music between Craig Safan’s score and a soundtrack filled with Billy Idol, Sinead O’ Connor, and other late ’80s MTV staples that only add to the amped-up spectacle of The Dream Master. The music, blatant pop culture references, and elaborate kill scenes all seem like an extension of Krueger’s larger than life personality. If Debbie (Brooke Theiss) was afraid of roaches, then Freddy Krueger would set up an elaborate trap to turn her into a cockroach and trap her in a roach motel. That’s just not the same kind of dreamlike terror that Wes Craven envisioned; it’s a different kind of entertainment for entertainment’s sake…and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master ended up being the most successful film in the franchise until finally being surpassed by Freddy Versus Jason (2003). Audiences just couldn’t get enough of the demonic dream killer and his gallows humor. The film was made to appeal to teenagers that were already hooked on fast cuts of cool images shown over cool new songs via MTV; it turned a dark idea about a serial killer invading kid’s dreams into a fully fledged pop spectacle with Freddy Krueger as a pop icon and the star of the show. New Line turned up Freddy’s “edgy” personality and turned down his actual darkness—which worked for The Dream Master. Robert Englund was even given top billing for the first time in the franchise—announcing that from that point forward, the audience was in for a completely different kind of wild, maniacal ride. Learning is fun with Freddy!