Studying the decline of Robert Englund’s most infamous creation
“Roll Over Beethoven – It’s Freddy’s Fifth!”
The above proclamation is one of a plethora of wise-cracking taglines that all but sealed Fred Krueger’s cinematic fate. Sure, the New Line Cinema would take one last commercial splurge in 1991‘s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, a film with such a bad reputation I’m dreading the prospect of revisiting what one of our readers aptly described as an exercise in micromanagement.
I’m all for silliness — some of the genre’s most memorable offerings thrived on it — but the monetary aspirations of this picture are so intrinsic that the cast, and to a large extent the director, are completely peripheral. Even the great Robert Englund is reduced to phoning it in to meet the demands of the movie’s target audience, his sinister cackle and gunslinger stance all but a distant memory. I know it’s hard to recall, but ‘ol pizza face’ was once the most terrifying creation the genre had to offer. Unlike the majority of seek-and-destroy barbarians flooding the slasher sub-genre, his was a different kind of evil. Jason Voorhees may be responsible for some of horror‘s most brutal deaths, but such an indestructible killing machine can be trusted to end your misery with one bestial blow. As for Krueger, the kill is merely the final curtain.
What made Krueger such a unique creation was his unabashed sadism. A notorious child killer burnt to death by a pack of vengeful parents, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street would seen the neighbourhood’s fallen monster reemerge in the dreams of their children, a place where Freddy was omnipotent and above the laws of mankind, using his ethereal funhouse to systematically plot their downfall. The concept provided an unlimited canvas for director Wes Craven’s fiendish imaginings, acting as the perfect setting for a character who derived his inimitable powers from the smell of fear itself. The director was wise enough to keep our character largely in the shadows, a place where all surreptitious monsters should remain. At the time, overexposure would have been like Kryptonite to Krueger. The less we saw, the more we were afraid.
[seconds after fuel pump stabs into Dan’s leg]
Freddy Krueger: Fuel injection!
Inevitable sequel Freddy’s Revenge told its own story but failed to capitalise on Craven’s game-changing concept, something A Nightmare of Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors would rectify in 1987. Further exploring Krueger’s subconscious battleground, the movie would give Freddy a commercial edge with a series of action movie puns that would take his marketing status to another stratosphere as New Line’s indie rocket continued to soar. 1988 would see Krueger merchandise popping up all over the place, be it kids costumes, peripheral pop video appearances, and yes, even the New Line manufactured Fred Krueger pyjamas, the kind worn by the very age group the fictional character so cruelly targeted. Yes, the movies carried an R rating, but they understood exactly who their demographic was. I was six years old back in 1988, and I was going to see this movie by hook or by crook as soon as it landed on VHS. After all, they can always blame the parents.
All of this led to the practical effects extravaganza that is The Dream Master, a movie that eschewed the fear factor almost entirely, creating a stage for horror’s lamest stand-up phenomenon. Though visually impressive, any semblance of horror had all but evaporated by the time ’80s pop starlet Tuesday Knight’s hit single Nightmare replaced Bernstein’s scathing lullaby as the song that played over the opening credits. Not content with merely introducing outside celebrity, the movie even featured an end credits Freddy rap thrown in for good measure. Although not the worst in the series, Freddy’s fourth outing will be remembered as the one where the rot truly set in.
So how would one go about describing The Dream Child? That’s a good question, and not the easiest one to answer. One thing I’m certain of is that it’s certainly not a horror movie. A successful horror requires a plot that you can at least get your head around; characters who you can relate to on some basic level. Even movies that are devoid of tension have their quirks: a charmingly silly premise, some endearing practical effects, even some good, old fashioned blood and guts. This movie has none of that. In fact, with its abundance of superfluous quips and fairy tale spectacle, it is the horror equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, only far more regimented and low-key. The movie even gives us the infamous Super Freddy let loose on a comic book landscape, a shameless plug for Innovation Publishing’s short-lived comic series, which would lead the company to bankruptcy by 1992.
This was in anticipation of a backlash from anti-violence groups making their presence felt at the turn of the ’90s, and it is more than understandable. A sadistic monster with knives for fingers was hardly the greatest role model for impressionable young kids, a fact punctuated by the infamous Jamie Bulger case in 1991, which saw a toddler brutally murdered by two ten-year-old boys after the pair had apparently watched and imitated a brutal death scene from Child’s Play 3. Still, by the time The Dream Child was released in 1989, Krueger had been transformed into something else entirely. Every last facet of the original incarnation was gone, replaced by a convenient plot device whose sole purpose was to appeal to the MTV generation and flog a truckload of questionable Freddy-based products. You can’t entirely blame those at the helm. New Line was the house that Freddy built, and The Dream Child‘s disappointing numbers signalled that the foundations were crumbling, which was potentially devastating for a studio of their size.
Creatively, there was even more uncertainty. What exactly was the point of this movie? Who was it made for? And who in the world could possibly enjoy it? Those are questions that slipped by the wayside since the very presence of Krueger, in any form, was a licence to print tickets. The series began with a low-budget punt on a game-changing idea, one that would inevitably grow tiresome as the character caught fire (no pun intended) and the sequels rolled on, the New Line marketing team doing everything possible to squeeze just a little more blood out of a soon-to-be-anaemic concept. In the end, susceptible tykes were willing to swallow any old rubbish they shovelled down our throats. We became passive consumers, attracted to the manufactured buzz of savage trends, and to see it happen to a character of Krueger’s once formidable stature was tremendously disheartening.
The Dream Child‘s plot, as far as there is one, commits the biggest crime one can commit when dealing with the supernatural: it attempts to expand on the character’s backstory. The intrinsic flaw of any sequel is the necessity for more of the same, but with such a cynical outlook and so many sequels, more of the same is often the safer bet — just ask Jason Voorhees and the suits over at Paramount, who must have chuckled over New Line’s handling of the character in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. The fourth sequel in the Nightmare series focuses on Krueger’s conception, and for a movie that targets a youth audience they offer absolutely no sense of restraint or decorum. As the story goes, Freddy’s mother, Amanda — a nun, no less — was accidentally locked in an insane asylum and raped by numerous patients, giving birth to not only Krueger, but the infamous moniker ‘The bastard son of 100 maniacs’. Such a development is ugly rather than dark, something at odds with the fantasy tone of the picture, and is enough to cheapen the character irrevocably.
Our returning protagonist is Alice (Lisa Wilcox), whose previous tumble down the rabbit hole left her victorious thanks to an evil-banishing rhyme and a dose of kung-fu handed down to her by her dead brother, neither of which are utilised here. This is the fifth time Krueger has targeted the kids of Elm Street (sixth if you count his pre-death reign of terror) and Alice’s new batch of paper-thin friends still look at her like she’s crazy. In fact, even though Freddy’s previous slaughterhouse happened only a year prior, they have absolutely no recollection of those past events beyond boyfriend Dan, who is promptly put out of his misery in the first of a series of underwhelming practical effects set-pieces. As damaging as The Dream Master was in many respects, nobody could knock its extravagant special effects, which were meticulously thought out and wonderfully conceived. Here, they are just another rushed necessity.
Freddy’s plan to return to the fray this time comes in the form of Alice’s unborn child, who Krueger attempts to possess with the intention of being born into the real world, an idea made all the more ludicrous since that child is barely a fetus. The movie has no real identity beyond a hodgepodge of cynical marketing strategies. The Dream Child is neither scary nor violent, and though it can be argued that neither was its predecessor, The Dream Master achieved its goal as an MTV tie-in and visual spectacle with contemptuous aplomb. This does neither. In fact, the dream world concepts are so lazy and hastily put together that you struggle to stay the distance, and I’m sure it was the same for a lot of die hard Krueger fans expectantly awaiting the return of their marquee attraction.
Freddy Krueger: [Putting, the food in Greta’s mouth] Open wide!
There is so much wrong with Freddy here, so much about him that doesn’t compute. Perhaps most offensive is his make-up design, a bland creation that is so far removed from his earlier incarnations that he hardly seems like a monster at all, and you have to think that, as with everything else on offer here, this was a shrewd and conscious decision as they looked to further broaden the character’s commercial appeal. Just go back and compare his look here with the likes of Freddy’s Revenge. The difference is astonishing. As usual, Englund puts his heart and soul into a character that simply would not exist without him, but he is fed so many cheap one-liners that he goes beyond self-parody into the realms of excruciating. All that’s missing is the canned laughter.
There are some plus points. A mind-blowing practical effects set-piece featuring the aforementioned Dan and a quasi-transmutative motorcycle recalls the visual splendour of the previous instalment, and the film’s fantasy set design is a feat in craftsmanship, but the perplexing plot developments of a screenplay that was admittedly rushed into production for the sake of cashing-in on The Dream Master‘s astonishing popularity kill all creative aspirations dead. The fact that The Dream Child features only three kills — the lowest in the series — is both disheartening and merciful, and indicative of where the series was heading commercially. Mark’s ‘Paper Boi’ death is, like much of the movie, a visual treat designed to appeal to the comic book crowd, an avenue briefly explored by New Line, but eating disorder victim Greta’s death, force-fed at the hands of a tiresomely overexposed Freddy, is ill-judged and sloppily conceived. Anorexia, which is most prominent in the movie’s teen demographic, is nothing to poke fun at. There was also the involvement of the notoriously ruthless MPAA to consider, who were well aware of the character’s popularity with children and the moral outrage it inevitably inspired. Director Stephen Hopkins was similarly unimpressed with the movie, stating, “It was a rushed schedule without a reasonable budget and after I finished it, New Line and the MPAA came in and cut the guts out of it completely. What started out as an OK film with a few good bits turned into a total embarrassment. I can’t even watch it anymore.”
How ironic that one of horror’s most cruel and effective monsters would be reduced to little more than a pantomime villain, an irony that is all the more damning due to the fact that it was so consciously and systematically forged. What we get is something far more perverse than the original character, a crude imitation of a once creative franchise that peddles its dull mix of faux-horror and youth-oriented marketing with the facile sheen of a Saturday morning commercial. All the elements are there, but none of them ring true: half-assed set-pieces, tepid kills, and a user-friendly version of Freddy who just seems lost in the mix — this was a sucker punch to anyone who cherished the Krueger character. Not even the eye-catching set design can save this one, Freddy’s dilapidated theatre of dreams like a stage without actors, chugging along with all the complexity of a Punch and Judy production with absolutely none of the wit. Back in 1984, the very notion that I may one day take pity on a sadistic child killer was unthinkable, but pity was my overriding emotion when the credits rolled here. That, and empathy for the actor who had brought so much life to Craven’s most infamous creation.