Thursday, December 01, 2005

Are you ready for Freddy?

Christmastime always makes me think about Freddy Krueger. And while the first film is obviously the best, the third perhaps the most fun, and the second fascinating from the perspective of queer theory, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is unfairly overlooked.

The reason is simple. What distinguishes A Nightmare on Elm Street from the Friday the 13th series is its pronounced sense of style. The dream structure of the former allows more room for directorial flourishes than the straightforward assaults of the latter. So each entry in the series carries a distinctive filmmaking voice. And The Dream Master, released when I was in preschool, is Freddy for kids. Renny Harlin, the director, was subsequently responsible for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea, Driven and Mindhunters. Each of those films shares a fidgety, immature, pre-adolescent sensibility; The Dream Master is easily Harlin's best film because the silliness works with the material.

Consider the obligatory "resurrection of Freddy." These scenes, in which Freddy is revived by some not-yet-mentioned bit of wizardry, are neccessary to keep the sequel train rolling. But where other entries struggled to come up with scenes that were plausible within the context of the Elm Street universe, Freddy is resurrected here by flaming dog urine. It's as if the screenwriters were protesting against the very suggestion that a Freddy picture should be believable. Filmed straightforwardly, this could have ended the series, but Harlin films it with just the right amount of sophomoric humor - not too sleazy, not too insulting. This endearingly naive enthusiam reappears throughout the film. There are references to Friday the 13th and Jaws that a preschooler might find hilarious. Karate and pizza both factor heavily into the mise en scene. For an 80's slasher film, The Dream Master is remarkably sexless; sex is only invoked in childish terms, as a put-down or an obscure concept, such as when Alice (Lisa Wilcox) fantasises about Rick (Andras Jones) a hunk, which causes him to blush. And to top it off, the soundtrack features an original Fat Boys tune - the Fat Boys weren't for hip-hop fans, they were for kids. Remember their song on the PBS math show Square One about a million being greater than a billion? I know I do.

I realize this could be taken as condescending, and I don't mean it that way. I've wondered lately whether a thematically rich film is of any less value if its merits are unintentional. On the one had, a consciously "honest" movie speaks for the artistry of those involved. On the other hand, something that unconsciously arrives at the same conclusion, the same truth, carries with it a feeling of purity - truth discovered rather than designed. And The Dream Master, like The Shining or Suspiria, does tap into an elemental fairy tale sense of dread. And this is why it is interesting from a child's perspective. Bruno Bettelheim wrote extensively on the need for children to be exposed to darkness, so long as the story eventually delivers its characters and therefore encourages children to be optimistic - to know that there is a way out of the witch's gingerbread house. The Dream Master has just the right level of artifice to support a "fairy tale" reading; here Freddy has more in common with a Brothers Grimm monster than the grimy child killer Wes Craven created, and so he works more as a mythic obstacle to be overcome by growth and experience rather than a projection of our real-life fears.

This is not to say that the film is a masterpiece - much of the acting is wooden (save for the excellent Ken Sagoes, reprising his Kincaid from Dream Warriors). The characters often make decisions that are laughably stupid even in a fairy-tale context (Joey falls for the exact same trick that he did in Dream Warriors). And the final deus ex machina, involving a shard of stained glass, is much more contrived than anything in Adaptation. But still, The Dream Master is interesting both as a well-made horror sequel and a cultural artifact. It exists in its own silly little universe. I wouldn't be surprised if Richard Kelley is a fan - this shares with Donnie Darko a distinctly late-80's otherworldly atmosphere. As my friend Garrison once observed during a scene in which a high school teacher delivers exposition about the Dream Master mythos: "What the hell kind of class is this, Dream Master 101?"

Garrison's comment speaks to all that is wrong and right about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. And as for why Christmas makes me think of Freddy, remember that the year this film was released, I was entering preschool. That October, my mom scandalized other parents at Playmates Preschool by allowing me to go trick-or-treating dressed as the son of a hundred maniacs. I hadn't yet seen any Nightmare movies, but I was well aware of Freddy through his frequent appearances on TV (even Nickelodeon!), and there simply was no cooler, creepier monster. Like Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy tapped straight into my post-toddler anxieties. And there, on the other end of the spectrum, was Santa, who was all that is right in the world. Yet Christmastime is also a time of ghosts and spirits, and Freddy's red-and-green sweater only complicates things further. That's far as I'll go into a personal semiotic analysis for now, but Freddy will always be the left hand to Santa's right.

Also note that Will Smith wrote songs about both Christmas and Elm Street when he was still the Fresh Prince. The Willenium and I have a lot in common.

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