The fourth entry of one of horror’s most popular franchises, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master also happens to be the first one to give Robert Englund star billing. It was about time; at this point in the series, Freddy Krueger had achieved mega icon status, drawing thousands of fans to Englund’s trailer during production in the hopes of getting a glimpse of him in full makeup. Released in theaters 30 years ago, on August 19, 1988, The Dream Master became the highest grossing film of the series until Freddy vs. Jason came along in 2003. The fourth entry may not be as beloved as the films in which Wes Craven had a direct hand in, but it put Englund in top billing, introduced a compelling final girl in Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox), and brought the most imaginative special effects of the series.
There’s a lot of strange choices in The Dream Master, starting with the way Krueger is resurrected from his demise in the previous entry. Krueger possesses the dog of Dream Warriors’ survivor Kincaid, then has the dog piss fire over his grave. It only marked the beginning of this sequel’s full submersion into the surreal. Directed by Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, Die Hard 2), fresh off his American feature debut Prison, The Dream Master is what happens when you cross an ambitious young director with an affinity for special effects and a major writers strike.
Harlin wanted special makeup effects artist John Carl Buechler, whom he’d just worked with on Prison, involved with effects for The Dream Master. Buechler’s contribution? The fully articulated, radio-controlled Nightmare Pizza, with moving human face meatballs. Buechler was just one of many extremely talented artists working on this sequel. Howard Berger handled Freddy Krueger’s makeup application, and a team of notable names like Brian Wade, Bart Mixon, and Screaming Mad George worked on the special makeup effects team. Screaming Mad George, who has long since built up a reputation for the surreal, fits right at home in this entry with some of the weirdest effects of the franchise. If you were to list the most memorable deaths of the series, Debbie Stevens’ (Brooke Theiss) being turned into a cockroach and squashed in a roach motel by Freddy should make the cut.
The Dream Master also boasts the most ambitious finale of all, too. While Freddy has been collecting the souls of Alice’s friends, she’s been collecting their dream powers to harness in the final battle. When Alice forces Freddy to look at his own reflection in a mirror, the souls break free and literally tear Freddy apart. It’s an epic 3-4 minute death sequence comprised of around 20 special effects. This finale sequence was headed by special makeup effects artist Steve Johnson (Blade II, Night of the Demons). For the close-ups of the souls bursting forth from Freddy’s chest, Johnson and his team built a 20-foot-tall Freddy with an open chest cavity covered with a thin layer of material for performers to burst through. When Freddy is pinned to the wall by the little arms of the souls breaking free, it’s a prop wall and fake lower body with a hole for Englund’s upper body. When the arms then rip his skull open, that’s puppetry and animatronics.
There’s a determined charm to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. It’s weird and it doesn’t always make the most sense (uh..flaming dog pee), but it’s a stunning showcase of practical effects. I’ll also forever go to bat for Alice Johnson as an underappreciated final girl, the only to fight Krueger twice and live, but it’s also an interesting moment in the history of the series as the film released at the peak of Freddy Krueger’s popularity. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny just how great the special effects were for The Dream Master.