Scary movies went through an odd phase in the late eighties. With horror cinema teetering on the edge of mainstream, producers became so eager to repeat their recent hits that they flooded the market with blatant knock-offs and sequels, effectively discrediting the very genre they’d helped legitimise. By 1989, classic monsters like Jason and Freddy (Robert Englund) had lost much of their luster, their respective myths watered down by recycled antics and self-referential camp. As such, one can hardly blame fans for dismissing A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child as yet another perfunctory cash grab, but I happen to love the movie, so there.
Rather than ignore our fatigue, director Stephen Hopkins and screenwriter Leslie Bohem make Freddy’s weakened grasp on our id a central part of the story, imbuing his latest ploy with a sense of desperation. Having lost the souls of the Elm Street kids at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), our baddie has reverted to more sensible power levels, able to affect the dreamscape but not define it. What’s more, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child has him trapped in the subconscious of his new nemesis, Alice (Lisa Wilcox), until a loophole manifests itself by way of her unborn son. This, of course, ties into our heroine’s insecurities about single parenthood.
In fact, an alternate understanding of the plot lies in our villain tailoring every new scheme to his host’s subconscious dread, whether it relates to Nancy’s alienation in the first film or Jesse’s carnal angst in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). Here, Freddy gives form to our heroine’s potential failings as a mother, which explains why Amanda Krueger (Beatrice Boepple) plays a more active role in her nightmare. This also justifies A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child depicting her offspring as a ten-year-old as opposed to a foetus or a grown man. Jacob (Whitby Hertford) isn’t really Alice’s son so much as an embodiment of her maternal aspirations.
The notion of children being haunted by their parents’ baggage has been a recurrent theme throughout the series, but A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child constitutes the first entry to delve into the grown-ups’ perspective. I like, for instance, that the Jordans still play an active role after their son’s (Danny Hassel) death. We get the sense of a damaged but ultimately well meaning couple as opposed to the nasty caricatures in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). By the same token, Alice’s dad (Nick Mele) is granted a full redemption, having given up the bottle in between movies to become a wounded but supportive figure to our heroine. I dig the detail of his still mourning her brother: “It’d be nice to hear a boy playing in the house again.”
For the first time since A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, I feel for the characters and get the impression that their existence extends beyond their respective archetypes. For example, Mark (Joe Seely) is presented as an emo comic book geek, but his crush on class beauty Greta (Erika Anderson) comes across as a genuine connection. One suspects the two might’ve hooked up if she wasn’t a slave to her parents’ expectations. A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child also breaks a few stereotypes by allowing its Eighties Sassy Black Friend™ to show emotional vulnerability, such as when Yvonne (Kelly Jo Minter) breaks down in tears because she thinks her pal’s lost her marbles.
However, my favourite character remains Alice, whom Lisa Wilcox portrays with such fierce conviction that I hoped, at the time, she’d become a permanent successor to Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy. Her performance carries much of A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, which inverts the slasher formula by having our heroine, not the killer, chase around the cannon fodder teens. After all, Freddy can’t harm the mother-to-be without endangering his meal ticket, so the only source of suspense lies in how many souls she can save before the credits.
Some may begrudge A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child for lowering the stakes, but I find Freddy works best as a pathetic figure, channeling the schoolyard pettiness that inspired Wes Craven’s original creation. I like, for instance, the way our baddie constantly looks over his shoulder in this one, as if to make sure his mom hasn’t caught up yet. Also consider the scene in which the extras in his own fantasy tear him to bits. By now, we know the “Springwood Slasher” too well to find any of his antics unsettling, but the idea of the nightmare world possessing dark corners beyond even his control piques my morbid curiosity in just the right way.
You see, the dreamscape in A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child functions as its own character, with a strong Gothic identity that permeates every gorgeous set and grotesque special effect. Slowing down the pace with long tracking shots, Hopkins allows us to experience Alice’s nightmare in its full, uninterrupted glory: no jump scares, gory distractions, or extraneous dialogue (seriously, seven minutes pass before the first real conversation). I also appreciate how the director plays with dream logic, such as when our heroine switches identities mid sequence or draws herself on a comic book page to change settings. Brimming with inventiveness, these moments almost make up for the abysmal kill sequences, which may be the worst in the entire series.
It’s as if the bigwigs at New Line Cinema took a gander at the shooting script and exclaimed, “Needs more zingers! Quick!” Unable to reconcile this request with the somber themes of A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, Bohem threw his hands in the air and proceeded to extend every murder with two pages of lazy gibberish. The man didn’t even bother to delete the original demises, as one character crashes out of a truck, only to die again on a motorcycle, before waking up in the crashing truck. Oh, and don’t get me started on the comic book kill: “Faster than a bastard maniac, more powerful than a loco-madman!” What the hell does that even mean?!
Mercifully, there are only three of these sequences, one of which plays fine in retrospect (I dig the creepy doll). Back in the day, I used my VHS to create a “Phantom Edit” with abridged kill sequences, reducing the runtime by just under six minutes. Alas, that short time may have proven enough to distract audiences from the rest of A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child, which otherwise earns its status as the last sequel to carry the “Elm Street” moniker. Consider how it consolidates the series’ various themes and continuity points into a haunting coming-of-age tale for Alice and long-time fans alike. I just wish the producers had grown up too…