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A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

Nightmare on Elm Street 4With the strong success of the third movie, New Line Cinema struck their biggest gold with this 1988 sequel helmed by Finnish director Renny Harlin.  The Dream Master takes a lot of what made Dream Warriors marketable and entertaining and amplified it.  This is definitely the most mainstream film in the franchise with many pop culture sensibilities, and that resulted in the largest box office take until 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason.  For many years I had formed a much more negative opinion of this film, but now that I’ve watched it again, I can say that this is a very well made movie.  However, I cannot say that it’s a very effective horror movie.

Proving there’s no rest for the wicked, the unspeakably evil Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is again resurrected from the grave to wreak havoc upon those who dare to dream, but this time, he faces a powerful new adversary.  As her friends succumb one by one to Freddy’s wrath, telepathically gifted Kristen Parker (Tuesday Knight) embarks on a desperate mission to destroy the satanic dream stalker and release the tortured souls of his victims.  However, her power will have to be passed to her friend Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox) as she has the ability to overcome Freddy’s control, and absorb the power of her slain friends to end Krueger once and for all.

I do enjoy a couple of Renny Harlin’s movies.  The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2 are definite favorites of mine, and I am anxious to watch Cliffhanger very soon.  However, I don’t think horror really is his strong suit, despite how gory his early films are.  I will certainly hand it to him for having a great handle on gore effects, and his films usually look damn good on all levels.  Still, this film is a long way removed from the brilliant execution of chilling suspense and the masterful enveloping experience of terror of Wes Craven’s original classic.  However, on a technical level, this is probably the best made film of the franchise until New Nightmare.  Harlin just knows how to move his camera in smart, cinematic ways.  There seems to be more camera movement overall with some steadicam work, and smart, engaging camera angles.  This is a very polished looking film having nearly triple the budget of Dream Warriors, and it shows through in all aspects.  It has vibrant colors, but a good mix of light and dark.  The whole movie feels just a little more theatrical in its lighting as well.  Thus, the mood is a little more artistically crafted, visually, than Dream Warriors, but it does lack a good dose of suspense.  The film has its gore, its violence, and its imagination in high gear, but doesn’t make itself all that scary.

This film loses a lot of potential emotional resonance having to recast Kristen Parker with Tuesday Knight.  There was apparently a turbulent experience for Patricia Arquette on the previous movie, and for possibly other reasons as well, she chose not to reprise the role of Kristen.  Knight does an okay job, but it really feels like a filler role to motivate the plot along quickly to put Alice in the lead role.  It also comes down to how she is written.  There is no motivation given for why she’s convinced that Freddy’s coming back to get her, and it feels like a large step backwards for the character.  She seemed to evolve a little in last film to a stronger protagonist, and she feels regressed to a more timid, easily spooked person here.

Returning from Dream Warriors are Ken Sagoes and Rodney Eastman as Kincaid and Joey, respectively.  They still deliver perfectly to what they did in the previous movie, but their chemistry with Knight is not as good as it was with Arquette.  I really like that The Dream Master feels like a direct sequel by bringing back these surviving characters while segueing into a new cast.  We spend the first act with them, fearing for their lives from Freddy’s imminent rampage of revenge, but then, it shifts into another gear that once again builds upon the premise of the series.  It feels like Freddy is triumphing here as an nearly indomitable force, and we need a stronger hero with special powers to combat him.

This film greatly builds Alice up as our new heroine.  We get glimpses into her emotional and mental state, both affectionate and angered, from under her meek appearance.  The film nicely balances establishing her as a well rounded character in all aspects while keeping Kristen also in the forefront in a more troubled state.  Lisa Wilcox proves to be a solid actress with fine range.  We see her take Alice from this lowly, slightly introverted young woman to a vibrant, tough fighter.  Yet, we get moments of endearing sweetness and heart making her easy to sympathize with.  We follow Alice as she grows into this awesome character, and delivers in spades as an action hero that a film of this sort required.

I think the idea of Alice gaining the powers of her friends as Freddy kills them is great.  It creates a fresh dynamic in the story that while Alice suffers the grief of her dying friends, she becomes stronger by them so that she can battle Freddy.  He is savagely tearing through them at a fast rate making the situation all that more dire and seemingly insurmountable.  It definitely moves the film along at a tight pace, and makes for an entertaining and original sequel.  I will hand it to the A Nightmare On Elm Street movies for always seeking out new ideas so that no film feels like a carbon copy of another.  The ideas might not always work, but there’s at least an effort put forth most times.

Since this film amplifies all of the entertaining qualities of the previous movie, we get a Freddy Krueger who cracks more jokes, throws out more one-liners, and has significantly more screentime.  Robert Englund still does a very good job with this material maintaining his own standards of integrity as an actor.  Unfortunately, the portrayal of Freddy in this film just falls further away from that frightening figure that stalks the dark recesses of your worst nightmares.  For crying out loud, he is seen in broad daylight on a sunny beach with a pair of sunglasses on.  That’s one of my least desirable images from this franchise.  It’s the total stark opposite environment to place Fred Krueger in.  The scene in question has Kristen going into her own idyllic dream, and then, Freddy crashes it in a very Jaws homage fashion.  The better way to do this would be to have the sky go dark and stormy, and have Freddy invade her dream in a more ominous way.  Keeping Freddy in the shadows is where he is the most effective, and while there is some of that here, the liberties taken just don’t work to maintaining him as a scary figure.

The effects work here is amazing and rather ambitious.  The waterbed scene is great in both concept and execution as Joey tries to reach the naked beauty inside, but then, gets gutted by Freddy.  The most shocking and disgusting effects are when Freddy goes after Debbie, and she is transformed into a insect piece by piece.  Even for as much gross stuff as I’ve seen in horror movies, this sequence still makes me cringe and my stomach turn.  It’s no wonder I haven’t worked up the nerve to watch David Cronenberg’s The Fly.  The big ending to the climax where the souls are fighting to break out of Freddy is greatly elaborate and highly impressive.  Many different effects were used to pull this off, and they cut together seamlessly and to fantastic effect.  While some of the effects are dated and a little cheesy, they still work for the film’s overall style, and were certainly high grade for their time.

The music is very pop oriented with a mostly synthesizer style score creating a great ambient mystique.  It is a perfectly 80’s soundtrack with a number of really good rock tracks from Billy Idol, Dramarama, Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and Tuesday Knight herself performing the opening title track “Nightmares.”  I really like the sound of all of it because it gives the film energy, style, and a little bit of edge.  It helps to energize the movie and the audience as events unfold and build up to a really great climax.

I now do really like this movie.  It is fun, entertaining, exciting, and quite smart in a number of ways.  Renny Harlin does a great job with the well developed screenplay.  Unfortunately, where it fails is in actually in the horror department.  I’m not sure what to classify this movie as because it does have gruesome, nightmarish imagery, and great effects along with a solidly put together cinematic atmosphere.  There’s just not much here to scare an audience with outside of the graphic scenes of gore.  There’s very little effort put into building up tension or suspense, which are key to roping an audience in tightly.  It’s a fun, dark fantasy with a pitch perfect pop culture sensibility and excellent violent, gory moments.  The Dream Master is a largely fun time spent with a very capable and enjoyable cast, and so, it is easy to see why this was such a big box office success.  I just wish there was more to be potentially scared about in this tightly paced 93 minute runtime.

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