13 Things You May Not Know About Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

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You can see our other Nightmare on Elm Street lists here.  Today, it’s time for Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), aka, the one where Freddy meets Alice and turns that one poor girl into a cockroach

By 1988, New Line could take risks on artier films like John Waters’ Hairspray and Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy because of the money Freddy Krueger was bringing them.  Their bastard son of a thousand maniacs was hotter than ever after Dream Warriors set franchise highs at the box office, even setting a record for biggest opening weekend for an independent movie.  So, they rushed into production on a part 4.  As would be their tradition with every Elm Street sequel other than part 2, the first person they talked to? Wes Craven.   

1. Wes Craven proposed introducing the concept of time travel
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Craven on the set of his 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow

It seemed like every time New Line asked Wes Craven to pitch them an idea for an Elm Street sequel he was willfully trying to destroy the franchise since he never wanted it to be a franchise to begin with.  Initially, he suggested Freddy invade the real world, haunting the dreams of people making a Nightmare on Elm Street film. Then he wanted Freddy to threaten to shit on Nancy’s (Heather Langenkamp) corpse, turn into a giant snake multiple times, inspire people to commit suicide in the real world at his birth home, and cause someone to cut off their own eyelids on camera for part 3.

What weird idea did he have for Part 4?  According to producer Sara Risher, “His idea was illogical.  It was about time travel within dreams that broke all the rules of dreams.  We decided not to go with that.”

2. The original script was written in 7 days
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Dream Master’s primary screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, later won an Oscar for Mystic River

Robert Englund had a script from Brian Helgeland that he liked, and would later be the basis for his directorial debut, 976-EVIL.  So, he told New Line to consider Helgeland for the Elm Street 4 script, and they actually liked Helgeland’s idea (formed with friend William Kotzwinkle) about someone having the power to be a Dream Master and thus be a formidable opponent for Freddy.  However, either because they knew a writer’s strike was around the corner or they simply wanted to start filming as fast as possible they only gave Helgeland and Kotzwinkle 7 days to turn in a finished script.  They just barely made their deadline, although according to some reports Helgeland wrote it completely on his own, locked away at his family’s home in Massachusetts and producing pages of script as fast as possible.  Dream Master became the first film released to credit Helgeland as a writer.  Fast-forward to today, he’s won an Oscar for Mystic River, and written movies you likely know, such as L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory, and 42.  Kotzwinkle only ever received one additional film credit beyond Dream Master, but is a steadily working novelist.  

3. Wes Craven turned down New Line’s offer to direct and re-write their script 

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New Line didn’t love the Dream Master script.  So, even though they had turned down Wes Craven’s original story pitch they returned to him to ask if he would re-write the script and direct.  Why did he say no?  According to Craven: 

“The script I saw was written by William Kotzwinkle.  He’s obviously a gifted writer, but when they had problems with the script they came to me and my [writing] partner Bruce Wagner to rewrite it. Bruce and I thought if we were going to be approached, we should be approached as artists of the original material. So, New Line went off to do some more work with the script they had.”

Translation: he really wanted to do that time travel thing.

4. Because of the writer’s strike they had to improvise a fair bit of the script

WGA Strike

In 1988, the WGA went on strike from March to August, lasting 155 days, making it (at the time of this writing) the longest strike in WGA history.  By the time the strike hit, the Helgeland/Kotzwinkle script had undergone multiple re-writes, but according to director Renny Harlin, “There was sort of a rough script but [more of] a blueprint for the movie.”  Once the strike hit, no American writer would touch the Dream Master script.  Instead, it was up to Harlin and his collected producers and actors to simply fill in the story and dialogue gaps, all of their work uncredited, of course, since they couldn’t officially do anything to the script.  As a result, Harlin claims most of the dream sequences came from his own mind, “Mostly I would come up with the nightmares because I had an endless amount of nightmares in my memories from childhood.”

By the time Dream Master came out, its only credited writers were Helgeland, Kotzwinkle, and brothers/writing partners Jim and Ken Wheat (The Fly 2)  

5. Renny Harlin got the job by refusing to take “no” for an answer
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Renny Harlin’s first American film Prison, starring a young Viggo Mortensen

Harlin had come from Finland to Hollywood to seek his fortunes, having already directed an action film back in Finland called Born American.  However, by 1988 he’d only landed one job in Hollywood, directing the horror film Prison (which, incidentally, directly led to Kane Hodder landing the part of Jason Vorhees in New Blood).  He was reduced to living in a tiny one-room apartment with a friend, living on cans of beans.  When he interviewed for the Elm Street 4 gig, New Line boss Robert Shaye just saw a big, tall Finnish guy whose accent sometimes made him difficult to understand.  Shaye could not see how Harlin could understand the horror genre, or even be understood by the actors on set.  So, they gave him a firm no.

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No, that’s not a Die Hard villain. It’s Renny Harlin on the Dream Master set with producer Rachel Talalay

To them, negotiations were over; to Harlin, they’d only just begun.  Rather than accept their rejection, he instead showed up at the New Line offices on a daily basis, repeatedly requesting to speak with Shaye.  For a variety of reasons, they didn’t like any of the other directors who came in for meetings about Elm Street 4, and Harlin always seemed to be around.  Eventually, his persistence won the day, to some degree because he was so clearly impoverished that his clothes never seemed to change day-to-day and even began to smell.  They had to hire him just so he could afford some new clothes.  

6. It’s not 100% clear why Patricia Arquette didn’t return except it kind of is
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Patricia Arquette’s possible reaction to not having to return in Nightmare on Elm Street 4

Arquette made her film debut in Dream Warriors, which ends with a clear passing of the Elm Street final girl baton from Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy to Arquette’s Kristen.  However, Arquette had an uneasy working relationship with that film’s director, Chuck Russell, after she needed over 50 takes to get through her first scene.  Maybe that’s why she felt no real compulsion to return as Kristen in Dream Master?  Then again, maybe her agent asked for more money, ala Amy Steel after Friday the 13th Part 2?   Maybe she was simply ready to move on to bigger and better things?

No one interviewed in the Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy documentary seems to know for sure why Arquette didn’t come back.  However, there is one obvious explanation pretty easily verifiable based upon the birth-date of Arquette’s son (1/3/1989): she was probably pregnant when Elm Street 4 was filming in early-mid 1988.

7. Tuesday Knight sang the theme song and starred in the movie

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Tuesday Knight had the unenviable task of replacing Arquette in the role as Kristen, and although she’s a fairly poor substitute she did bring something to the table Arquette couldn’t: she sang on the soundtrack.  

The daughter of a famous music industry song writer, Knight scored a record deal in 1984, and her eponymous debut album came out through CBS Records in 1987.  After being cast in Dream Master, she showed some of her music to Renny Harlin and company just in case they didn’t know she was also a singer.  They liked what they heard, and asked her to come up with anything she could for the movie.  She and her writing partner banged out “Nightmare” in two hours, and let Harlin listen to it.  She never heard anything about it again until she was at the Dream Master premiere, and heard “Nightmare” played over the opening credits:

8. Robert Shaye has a cameo as a professor

New Line boss Robert Shaye cameod as a S&M bartender in Elm Street 2, and then he showed up again in Elm Street 4 as a professor lecturing the students about dreams.  So, does this mean that his unnamed bartender from Elm Street 2 was actually a professor by day with a very kinky night life?

9. Robert Shaye wouldn’t talk to Renny Harlin while they were filming
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Shaye in New Nightmares

Robert Shaye was never comfortable with Harlin as director, but if that changed during the filming of Elm Street 4 he sure didn’t let on.  According to Harlin, Shaye rarely ever spoke to him throughout the film shoot even though he would visit the set quite often.  That made filming Shaye’s cameo scene a bit difficult.  The resulting tension meant Harlin lived each day on set like it would be his last because he was fairly positive Shaye was going to fire him at any moment without warning.  

10. Renny Harlin wanted Toy Newkirk to re-dub her lines to sound more “black”
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To a Finnish director, this girl wasn’t black enough

Harlin claims to have no memory of this, joking this sounded more like something Robert Shaye would have wanted.  However, according to Toy Newkirk, who played Sheila in Dream Master, at the end of production Harlin approached her about going back in to re-dub all of her lines because he didn’t think she sounded “black enough.”  He basically told Newkirk, an African-American woman, to sass and black it up.  Infuriated, she flatly refused.  She ain’t mad at him, though.  After the premiere, Harlin apologized to her profusely, presumably because after seeing the film with a crowd he noticed that they did not, as he might have feared, reject the character of Sheila for not being “black enough.”

11. They snuck in some nudity

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For the scene where we see the souls crying out from Freddy’s chest, they built a 20-ft replica of Freddy’s chest, and covered the front with a thin, latex dental damn-like material.  Three mostly nude actors, with very theatrical body make-up, entered the prop from the back to give the appearance of souls attempting to break through Freddy’s chest.  So, if you thought you saw a woman’s nipples during that scene you weren’t wrong.  As shown in behind the scenes footage in Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacyat one point the prop actually toppled forward, taking all of the  semi-nude performers with it along with at least one camera operator.  No one was seriously hurt.  

12. Yes, they realized how silly it was for Freddy to be brought back to life by a dog pissing fire on his grave

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 Robert Englund likes to intellectualize Freddy’s revival via Kincaid’s dog pissing fire on his grave as being the work of some sort of hellhound, but most everyone else laughs it off as being intentionally silly.  Renny Harlin ran into James Cameron prior to filming, and when Cameron asked how they were reviving Freddy this time Harlin gleefully replied, “A dog is going to piss fire on his grave.”  An amused Cameron walked away not entirely aware that Harlin was being completely honest. 

13. Mere days after Dream Master‘s opening Renny Harlin was courted by all of Hollywood as the obvious new up-and-coming director
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Renny Harlin on the set of Die Hard 2

The first call came from Steven Spielberg, but it would ultimately be producer Joel Silver who won the day, getting Harlin to direct one bomb (The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine) and one ginormous hit (Die Hard 2), both of which came out in 1990.  By 1993, Harlin moved on to producing and directing the Sylvester Stallone hit Cliffhanger, but in 1994 he would delivered Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest box office bombs in film history (the biggest according to some measures).  His career never fully recovered, and, sadly, he kind of just did it again, directing the 2014 bomb Legend of Hercules.

Box Office

  • $49.3 million domestic, which would be like making $95.6 million at current ticket prices, i.e., around as much as Noah grossed this year.  This made Dream Master a top-20 grossing release of 1988, and easily the highest grossing horror film of the year.  In actual dollars, it is the third highest-grossing Nightmare on Elm Street, trailing only the 2010 remake and Freddy Vs. Jason, but in inflation-adjusted dollars the only Elm Street (or Friday the 13th) film to have made more/sold more tickets than Dream Master is Freddy Vs. Jason.

Next time, we’ll look at why exactly Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child failed.

You can also head here to check out our similar “13 things…” lists for the Friday the 13th films.

Sources: Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street LegacyNightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com, HorrorFanZine.com, BadAssDigest

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