top of page

Retro Recommendations: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master'

"Now, no one sleeps!"

Imagine a Rome in the annals of cinema history...

Its Julius Caesar is a murdering madman with a dirty, brown hat, and he has knives instead of fingers. Welcome to the wonderful world of surreal incubi. 1988 was the height of the Elm Street empire as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master flirted with the $50 million mark at the domestic box office.

The financial and critical success of the fourth Elm Street venture fabricated the character of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) into a household name albeit a menacing one. The film also launched the career of a then unknown Finnish filmmaker named Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Cliffhanger).

Make no mistake, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) had a lot to do with the success Nightmare 4 enjoyed. Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont created one of the horror genre’s foremost sequels while instilling a unique mixture of the macabre and imaginative imagery into Dream Warriors. This approach set the bar insanely high for the creative kills which became the mainstay of the Elm Street franchise moving forward.

Despite a writers’ strike which led to an unfinished screenplay credited to Brian Helgeland, Harlin called on his own arsenal of personal nightmares to help fill in the script’s gaps. Harlin also upped the ante with those whimsical death sequences which Russell and Darabont made so popular in Dream Warriors.

Sure, the story isn’t perfect, but it’s cohesive enough to help you limp across the finish line and enjoy one of the best Elm Street sequels. It might not be as structured a narrative as Nightmares 1 and 3, but The Dream Master exudes an energetic, non-stop thrill ride almost like a gnarly rollercoaster. Nightmare 4 is less haunted house and more Six Flags, but it absolutely works. And despite its impending 30th anniversary this summer, The Dream Master holds up considerably well.

And then there are those sumptuous special effects: The grand dream sequences (the car junkyard, the waterbed, the theater, the roach motel) forging those memorable visuals which lift the project to one of the most indelible Nightmares ever.

Fans of the series will have mixed feelings as they witness the return and quick demise of fan favorites Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) and Joey (Rodney Eastman) both of whom survived Dream Warriors. And don’t blink because Renny Harlin doesn’t waste anytime offing the surviving Elm Street children.

Now, it’s hard getting teary-eyed when Kristen dies since she’s no longer portrayed by Patricia Arquette. Tuesday Knight does a decent acting job, but the emotional connection between Kincaid, Joey and Kristen is clearly lost with Arquette’s absence.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 represents both the pinnacle and tipping point for the whole franchise. Renny Harlin achieved the impossible as he dazzled critics and made mountains of money for New Line Cinema. Sadly, after The Dream Master, the movies became much less imaginative and compelling.

Following a disappointing television show and three more lackluster installments, Elm Street lied dormant until the emergence of Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. Like those characters fans loved so much in the early days of the empire, The Dream Master is arguably the last of the Elm Street children.


A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master celebrates its 30th anniversary on August 19, 2018.

Believe it or not, Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner pitched a concept of Nightmare 4 to New Line Cinema. The idea introduced the notion of time traveling in the dream world. Robert Shaye and Sara Risher didn’t feel the idea was right for an A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel though. Wait, really? Explain this rationally, and with a straight face, in the context of The Dream Child (1989), Freddy’s Dead (1991) and New Nightmare (1994). Unfortunately, because of those creative differences relating to the time travel pitch, Craven turned down the opportunity to direct and re-write The Dream Master.

Sometimes, it’s the little things – the details if you will – which diminish the effectiveness of a horror film. After Kristen succumbs to Freddy’s wrath, tombstones neighbor Miss Parker’s own marker during the first funeral scene. They supposedly represent the fallen victims of Freddy Krueger: Nancy Thompson, Roland Kincaid, Donald Thompson and Joseph Peterson. Wait, what? Who is Joseph Peterson? Well, it’s supposed to by Joey Crusel’s grave. Perhaps the filmmakers hadn’t assigned a last name to Joey yet and felt they’d better do so since they buried him.

Renny Harlin’s original working script had many scenes which did not make the final film. One such interesting sequence was cut, and it occurs after Joey and Kincaid are killed. Kristen falls asleep and Freddy chases her down a passageway. Unable to pull her friends into her nightmare for assistance, Kristen faces certain death. However, Kristen’s hand catches fire, and she awakes having burned herself with a cigarette. Of course, this also would have foreshadowed her eventual fate later in the picture.

Kincaid’s dog, who is named Jason, was an obvious nod to Friday the 13th stalker Jason Voorhees. 1988 was originally supposed to be the year Freddy took on Jason, but the "versus" film didn’t materialize until 2003. Instead, Freddy faced off against the Dream Master while Jason took on Tina who was a Carrie-like telekinetic heroine in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.

In 1988, Nightmare 4 became the highest-grossing of the Elm Street ventures bringing in a domestic take of $49 million. The film virtually made back its $13 million budget its first weekend of release. Freddy vs. Jason (2003) finally took the top spot 15 years later with $82.6 million.

After being briefly replaced by a stunt double in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), and almost losing the opportunity to ever play the part of Freddy again, Robert Englund finally got his day in the sun in Nightmare 4. The recognition came as Mr. Englund received top billing in the credits of The Dream Master. Producers at New Line Cinema may have felt at one time anyone could play their dream monster, but Englund brought a wicked charm to Freddy which helped him stand apart from Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and so many other Frankenstein-like horror villains.

Diehard fans know producer Robert Shaye portrays a teacher in Alice’s class before her brother Rick dies. But did you spot the director? Glance around the classroom, and you’ll spot the long, blonde locks of director Renny Harlin. Wasn’t he too old to play a high school kid?

Despite how it sounds in the film when Alice is racing Dan (Danny Hassel) to the emergency room, the PA system is not paging “Dr. Shit.” The voice over the intercom is actually calling “Dr. Shaye,” which is an obvious tip of the hat to New Line Cinema’s Robert Shaye.

Much speculation swirled around the production of The Dream Master when actress Patricia Arquette did not reprise her role of Kristen Parker from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). In the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010), actor Rodney Eastman said New Line Cinema didn’t offer Arquette enough money to return. This seems plausible given Bob Shayes’ reputation, but Patricia was also pregnant with her first child Enzo Rossi in 1988. In addition, Arquette was already committed to the film projects Time Out (1988) and Far North (1988). Whatever the reason, and no offense to Tuesday Knight, The Dream Master could have been an altogether different film with Arquette in the role.

Rodney Eastman got the star treatment when it came time for his beloved Dream Warriors’ character Joey to perish. The waterbed scene is undoubtedly one of the preeminent kill sequences of the Elm Street franchise thanks to its inventiveness, imagery and that glorious zinger from Mr. Krueger:

"How’s this for a wet dream?”

But don’t discount the sound. While the song didn’t appear on the original motion picture soundtrack, Joey was slain by Freddy to the tune of Billy Idol’s Fatal Charm.

Actress Tuesday Knight served double duty on The Dream Master as she also performed the opening title sequence’s song: Running from this Nightmare. Sadly, as was the case with Billy Idol’s Fatal Charm, Running from this Nightmare did not appear on the original motion picture soundtrack. Knight also wrote the song along with Michael Egizi.

Look closely at the vials of blood Freddy holds when taunting Kristen in the Nurse Freddy scene. The vial closest to the camera clearly reads “Englund” which is a subtle nod to actor Robert Englund. There are other small homages peppered throughout the film: A magazine with a picture of Johnny Depp (Nightmare 1) can be found in Kristen’s bedroom, and a poster of The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven) adorns Kincaid’s bedroom.

The touching scene in which siblings Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Rick Johnson (Andras Jones) mourn Kristen’s death by watching old home movies was one of the very last scenes shot. Jones revealed in interviews that a combination of the writers’ strike and Renny Harlin’s struggles with the English language led to himself and Wilcox writing and improvising their own dialogue for the scene.

“How sweet, fresh meat..."

Renny Harlin was more interested in exploring “fresh faces” than continuing the lineage of the last of the Elm Street children. As a result, Harlin systematically wiped out the three survivors of Dream Warriors (Kincaid, Joey and Kristen) in the film’s first act. Casting director Annette Benson had her hands full trying to find a worthy Dream Master, and Benson auditioned over 600 actresses before Lisa Wilcox finally landed the role of Alice Johnson.

Ellie Cornell ended up playing the character of Rachel Carruthers in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989). However, the young actress also auditioned for the role of Alice in Nightmare 4. In an interview, Cornell said she was truly happy she ended up with the part of Rachel rather than Alice.

In the end, Rachel was murdered by Michael Myers with a pair of scissors, and Alice became the only “primary” character to survive two cinematic encounters with Freddy Krueger. How easy is it to believe Cornell was really satisfied with that casting outcome?


bottom of page