A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
This is where the film franchise took a serious slip and fall misstep. Someone realized that Freddy Krueger was on the verge of becoming a bad punchline, and so, steps were taken to make this a darker, more mature sequel. Rushed out into theatres just under a year after The Dream Master, director Stephen Hopkins did all he could to deliver a solid film, but there was too many misconceived qualities to be what the studio desired. This was the lowest grossing film of the series up to that point, and the reasons why are evident here.
Having survived and seemingly defeated him, Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) finds the deadly dreams of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) starting once again. This time, the taunting murderer is striking through the sleeping mind of Alice’s unborn child. His intention is to be “born again” into the real world at the expense of Alice’s new circle of friends. The only one who can stop Freddy is his dead mother, but can Alice free her spirit in time to save her own son?
For me, the biggest and most evident issue with The Dream Child is that it tries to tie campy, overblown humorous elements in with a gothic looking slasher film, and that just curls my upper lip in disgust. Stephen Hopkins certainly directs a very well shot movie, but that gothic production design is soaked in so much brown that it’s not inviting to look at. That visual style is really contained within the dream world, but that has always been the more fantastical and visually intriguing aspect of these films. Hopkins does have a great eye for stylish visuals, but it is a very drab film to look at in most cases. If it had a more subtle, realistic color palette like Craven’s original, or followed along the vibrant color schemes of Renny Harlin’s The Dream Master, this may have been a more visually exciting movie.
Lisa Wilcox is able to stretch out and expand upon her previous performance as Alice. She’s able to take that strong fighter, and add the emotional touches of heart and depth into her. It feels very organic from how she initially was in The Dream Master, but just melding that with her new found strength. Wilcox also brings out the heartache and inner turmoil of Alice with endearing charm and sympathy. She’s pushed to new limits, fighting to save not only her friends, but the life of her newly conceived son, which Wilcox embraces with a great deal of depth and motivation. All around, she leads this film with a lot of confidence continuing on as an inspiring hero for this franchise. I feel it’s unfortunate that she is never revisited again because Lisa Wilcox is such a solid and versatile talent, and really gave us a standout character to rival Nancy Thompson amongst fans.
Now, Alice’s new cast of friends are not filled by bad actors. They are quite good, but the characters just aren’t that appealing or entertaining. The closest we get is the comic book artist Mark. He’s decently fun, but is definitely downplayed. He has some good dramatic moments, and showcases some heart at times. It’s a shame that actor Joe Seely has nothing more to work with here because he seemed to have the potential to really breakout with a more entertaining performance. With Yvonne, I understand the idea of the friend that doesn’t always agree with you, but she is too abrasive too often. There is too much friction between her and Alice for my liking to where I just didn’t like the character. With all the teenagers that have been killed by Freddy in this town, you’d think she would actually wake up to the truth and start acting more open-mindedly. Instead, she remains a stubborn minded person dismissing her friends claims instead of trying to help them through most of the film. That’s a friend I wouldn’t care to have. Greta, the more upper class type friend, just doesn’t have much going for her as a character. The actress portraying Greta’s mother, however, is just terrible all the way through. She overacts the part to horrendously cartoonish levels. Her performance is very forewarning of some of what we’d get in Freddy’s Dead.
I found the kid who plays Jacob, Whitby Hertford, to be rather unappealing to look at and rather annoying. There was nothing about his performance that made me feel sympathy for him at all. Even worse is that the make-up department did all they could to make him look uglier, creepier. Surely, that was the intent, but part of the purpose of Jacob is to make him sympathetic; to make him someone you want to see saved from Krueger’s clutches. I couldn’t care any less about him if I tried. I really feel he should have been played more innocently, and have Freddy gradually corrupt him more and more to motivate sympathy from an audience and put more urgency upon Alice to act quickly.
Ten years ago, I was able to do an email based interview with Robert Englund, and from that, I gained insight into the shift in the tone and portrayal of Freddy Krueger from scary and serious to cheesy and comical. He said, and I quote, “I feel Freddy should be dark, but directors and fans like his dark humor. In many cases during the filming of all the movies I would give a dark and a comical take for certain scenes. Director liked the “button” that a laugh gives so they would often opt for the more comical take in the editing room.” The choice to take Freddy into comical territory was indeed outside of Englund’s control, and he simply gave the filmmakers the best performance he could based on what they wanted. This film delves deeply into the comical villain portrayal, and thus, the scare factor of Freddy Krueger is severely drained. He was turned into a twisted clown that might make some people laugh, but is almost guaranteed not to scare you at all. What is scary is that this is not the worst it would get to being.
The make-up work on Freddy does fall down in quality as he appears cheap and rubbery. This is a byproduct of the rushed production schedule. However, many of the various practical effects are impressive such as the motorcycle death sequence that seems straight out of Videodrome. There are some cool visual effects used when Mark gets sucked into his comic books, but it was far from anything new. It was mostly a retread of the classic a-Ha music video for “Take On Me.” The climax features effects and designs directly copying from M.C. Escher’s famous artwork Relativity with all the upside down staircases. It’s a fine idea, but it’s less surreal and just more whacky and silly. I’ve seen it done in Looney Tunes cartoons before, and so, I would hardly associate it with a frightening, vertigo-like nightmare. There are a number of very good visual effects in The Dream Child, but the ideas behind many of them aren’t all that great. Plus, they seem even more dated than those of The Dream Master.
And of course, since this film deals with a pregnancy, I honestly don’t think that A Nightmare On Elm Street movie is the proper platform to debate the issue of abortion. I am not going to inject my feelings on the issue here either. This film brings it up as a serious issue for Alice to contend with, but she remains strong in her decision to keep the child. People don’t go into a movie like this to have hot button socio-political issues debated. They are there to have a fun time being scared. Adding this sort of subject matter into the movie likely turned more than a few people off to it. While it is not an aspect of the film that really bothers me, it’s just not something that needed to exist in a slasher movie.
This sequel also feels uneven in its plotting, and rather thin in certainly places. The film is front loaded with establishing every element of this plot to where it leaves a lot of muddled meandering in the middle. It probably rushes us into the thick of the story quicker than necessary. Then, the film progresses past all of that to where it kind of goes through the slasher movie motions to rack up the body count. It’s not until the final act that any of these plot elements are actively dealt with, and even then, it becomes very repetitive just in order to fill in the remaining runtime. That’s odd to say since the film ends very quickly after Freddy is dispatched with, but still struggles to come in under the 90 minute mark. The third act confrontation with Freddy runs around in circles, both literally and figuratively, to where it just doesn’t feel exciting. Again, I didn’t care a thing for this creepy child Jacob to invest myself in Alice’s desire to protect him, and the filmmakers don’t really do anything to make him anyone to care about. So, having Alice and Freddy chase him around the dream world for the whole third act was just tedious. I generally like the further exploration of Freddy’s origins and bringing Amanda Krueger back into the fold from Dream Warriors. I just don’t think all of these elements have enough impact on the climax as they likely were supposed to. I understand not trying to close the door on Freddy, again, since he always comes back, but not trying to have a satisfying and solid ending to your movie is a terrible approach to have.
While Stephen Hopkins tried to take this into a darker, grittier look, it is the script that fundamentally sabotages that effort. I’m even hard pressed to say if this is even a potentially good concept because it is executed so poorly from a clunky screenplay. This is what you get when you rush the movie into theatres fifty-one weeks after the original. Back in 1989, it took that long just to get a movie from theatres onto home video. When you slow down, and take your time to find the right story and refine the concept, you will get a better movie in the end. Instead, The Dream Child is enough of a mess to call this a major pothole in the steady road of success of this franchise. While it was profitable, it did fall especially below expectations. Thus, New Line Cinema decided to begin plotting Freddy’s supposedly ultimate demise with what would be the most horrendous movie of this entire franchise. As for this sequel, ultimately, neither the attempt at a darker, more mature tone nor Englund’s best efforts could save it. The film is watchable, but not especially satisfying.