On Set: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Freddy goes to the dogs and plays nurse, among other bizarre developments, as the Krueger saga enters yet another phase.
By: Marc Shapiro
Published in Fanorgia #77.
The finest actor with whom director Renny (Prison) Harlin has ever worked pads out to the gravesite set of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. Harlin, whose trip down Elm Street is barely a week old, signals the cameras to roll. Jake the dog lifts his hind leg and lets loose with an April shower on the hallowed ground where the remains of Freddy Krueger lay buried. Jake’s execution of his part in the pivotal Freddy dream/resurrection sequence is faultless. Directors being the perfectionist breed of cat they are, the canine must do it again.
“That was great, Jake,” coaches Harlin, “but can we get one more?” Jake obliges, even when “one more” turns into many more. Harlin is finally satisfied. Jake gives the director his paw and walks off. “I’ve never worked with a more accomplished actor,” chuckles Harlin. “That dog would have piddled on that spot all day, if we asked him to.” Harlin punctuates his statement by taking a bite out of something disgusting with bread around it, which passes for breakfast. Outside Harlin’s office, adjacent to the soundstage/warehouse in an industrial district within spitting distance of the Magic Mountain amusement park, another day on the Nightmare 4 set creaks into motion.
Producer Rachel Talalay walks around Dream Master central, doing what all good producers do best: looking worried. Crew members with hammers pound on a mockup of a school nurse’s office that will provide the jumping-off point for this day’s major Krueger capers. The production’s still photographer, Gary Farr, a former combat photographer who made a cameo appearance in Salvador, regales this correspondent with tales of real-life atrocities.
“I’ll never forget the day I came upon that village,” marvels Farr matter-of-factly. “There were bits and pieces of bodies all over the place…” Thanks, Gary. Anybody want a slightly used Egg McMuffin? Farr’s stomach-churning tales are interrupted by the appearance of Robert Englund walking through the soundstage in a dress. In a dress? Say it ain’t so, Joe! The master of menace showing leg and Dolly Parton-sized hooters? Horror of horrors, the dream killer has cleavage! What a drag!
“That’s right, Fango readers, I’m sitting here in this makeup chair, picking mascara out of my eyeballs,” hisses Englund, adding insult to injury in his trailer. Dressed as a school nurse with as close as we’ve seen to the true Englund face in a Nightmare film. Freddy appears tired and a bit spaced out. He launches into his “automatic pilot” response to playing Freddy almost before the question is asked. Risking the wrath of Krueger, we inquire whether the fourth time is turning out to be the charm or a curse.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” warns Englund. “I did not come onto this picture real excited. I was still putting the finishing touches on 976-EVIL, and because of changes in this film’s start time, I had to turn down some interesting television and film work. I was a little weary of the whole thing. I had the feeling, when we were shooting the scenes in the junkyard, that my timing in playing Freddy wasn’t right. But when I saw those scenes cut together, I knew we had a gem going here.”
Englund’s muted enthusiasm is shared by other Nightmare 4 cast and crew members. The consensus is that The Dream Master, owing to Englund’s involvement in the upcoming Freddy’s Nightmares TV series, may be the last Nightmare film for at least two years. A rumor (fueled to some degree by Englund) ventures that this will be the last Nightmare film to star Englund as Freddy. Whatever the truth of the matter, everybody indicates they’re going the extra mile to make this the best Nightmare ever.
Jim & Ken Wheat’s script picks up where Dream Warriors left off. Freddy’s back (by way of the aforementioned dg whiz sequence, in which the urine will be replaced by fire) and systematically kills off surviving Elm Street kids Joey (Rodney Eastman), Kincaid (Ken Sagos), and Kristen (Tuesday Knight). The world’s dreams seem hell-bent for terror when a sweet young thing named Alice (Lisa Wilcox) arrives on the scene, complete with all the Dream Warrior powers rolled into one. Armed and dangerous, Alice and Freddy do major league battle.
The movie, budgeted at approximately $5 million on a 40-day Los Angeles shoot, is an FX extravaganza, including a film noir bit in which one lady teen titan is turned into a cockroach and stomped by Freddy. Heading up the FX team are Krueger’s main makeup man Kevin Yagher, Chirs (Critters 2) Biggs, Steve (Dead Heat) Johnson, late arrival John Buechler and Screaming Mad George. But even with the promise that Nightmare 4 holds, Englund concedes that the Elm Street series has, to a large degree, reached a point of no return. “The Nightmare films are not just Fango films anymore,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that the Fango fans, the punks and the heavy metal kids, were the grass roots audience that made these films a hit, but it would be unfair to claim them as the only fans now. Dream Warriors broke the series through to a more mainstream, across-the-board audience. In a sense, they’ve almost become family films.”
And in a sense, the third segment also made Freddy much less scary. Freddy wisecracked a lot more often and would almost have to be considered more the hero of the film than the villain. The overriding fear among genre addicts is that the Nightmare on Elm Street films by now may not be scary anymore. “If Renny had directed Dream Warriors instead of Chuck Russell, I don’t think you would be making that statement,” responds Englund. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m proud of Part 3, and Chuck did a marvelous job. Renny, however, has an eye not only for the rollercoaster ride but for the sick, offbeat, sexual and creepy as well. Nightmare 4 is cute like the previous film, but it’s also a return to the creepiness of the first two.” As if to illustrate the point, Englund takes a talk break, dons a wig, glasses and nurse’s cap and flounces over to the soundstage. On deck is a scene where a school nurse, comforting Kristen after an encounter with the dream world, turns into Freddy.
Producer Rachel Talalay has grown up on the Nightmare films; she’s gone from accountant and location manager on the first to producer on the fourth. Who better to chart the rise of Freddy’s adventures and how the films might be softening with age? “I knew there was something special about the original A Nightmare on Elm Street because just reading the script scared me,” Talalay remembers. “But you never think a film is going to be as successful as that one was. It was a big surprise.” Talalay also recalls that when Nightmare 3 broke the series through into a more mainstream arena, it necessitated much discussion of what to do with a fourth film. “We debated a long time on how to do Part 4,” she reports. “Did we want to do a small. really scary film and go back to the film’s roots, or did we want to continue to do a rollercoaster ride laced with comedy? Originally, we decided that to try and make it scary was more important, but we ultimately felt that since the audience was so familiar with Freddy and would be harder to scare, it would be better to go with the same feel that the third had.”
The producer admits that Freddy’s sudden leap from core horror fame to a more widespread audience has resulted in many heated, not to mention strange, discussions. “Telling Freddy’s past history has become a ticklish situation,” she reflects. “We’re attempting to soft-pedal his history as a child molester even though we realize that, since our audience for these films is expanding, we have to talk about it every once in a while. We’ve also had to decide how gory and violent these films should be. We’ve had effects sequences where what color goo was to be used, and whether we should show blood, and how much, were serious topics of discussion. We’ve modified a lot in The Dream Master.” This fine-tuning hopefully hasn’t resulted in the films losing the impact they once had. “The scares are there.” Talalay promises. “So is the rollercoaster ride. We may quite possibly be losing something by going this route, but I think we’ve gained something, too.”
“Hey! You’re wrecking my church model!” cries co-production designer Mick Strawn as your reporter accidently lays his tape recorder on a priceless sculpture. But Strawn (who, with sister C.J. also worked on Nightmare 3) doesn’t get ugly about it and instead explains why working on Elm Street is such a gas. “You can basically do whatever you want with these movies,” he enthuses. “We’re dealing with almost nonstop big and small gags. This time we even built the Elm Street house from the ground up.” Strawn goes into the particulars of a couple of gags. He cites a forced perspective set in the fabled cockroach stomping sequence as something that allowed him a creative stretch, and the borrowing of some tricks used in the old TV series Land of the Giants for that and other sequences in need of larger-than-life sets. “The neat thing about this film is that everything we do is designed to work within and to help along the story line,” Strawn notes. “These are not just effects bits thrown in to shock, they’re an integral part of what’s going on.”
Nearby, Englund finally finishes the insert shots for his bloody nurse scene. But a dream killer’s work is never done, and as long shadows begin their march across the soundstage and the rest of the crew breaks for dinner. Englund returns to his trailer to begin the four-hour transformation into the familiar scar-faced, razor-fingered Freddy Krueger for some nighttime close-up inserts. With time on his hands, Englund has a chance to reflect on the role that has brought him, in a space of four years, from relative obscurity to stardom. “Occasionally, I get a bit defensive about the Freddy character because people who don’t know better are quick to lump him in with all the other horror killers,” frowns an exasperated Englund. “And I know I’m the common denominator in the Nightmare films, which is why I don’t get real upset when people give Freddy the credit. Freddy is me and, to a very large extent, Wes Craven.” Englund points out that, after all this flight time, getting into Freddy’s character is more “automatic pilot” than anyone can imagine. “I don’t do a lot of prepping to play Freddy anymore,’ ‘ he reveals. “Freddy’s literally like putting on a shoe. I’ll sit down in the makeup chair, and just the act of the makeup going on my face will start the juices going.”
Observers might get the impression that Englund’s juices are slowing to a few droplets. “I don’t believe the character is being spread too thin,” responds the actor as he wriggles in his chair. “As long as storylines and new nightmares can be created that are consistent with Freddy’s cruelty, I think the films should continue. But I definitely don’t believe there should be a film a year, which is a pattern we’ve gotten into. Personally, I believe The Dream Master may be the time to put the Nightmare series on hold for a couple of years.”
One overriding reason why Englund is thinking in terms of an Elm Street hiatus is his involvement in the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series. “It’s something I’ll be very involved in,” he grins. “I’ll be doing a voice-over intro each week as Freddy, I’ll be directing some episodes and will act in some episodes as Robert Englund. I’ll be in at least four of the first 12 episodes as Freddy, but you’ll never know which episodes or to what extent. In one episode, Freddy might come through a door, say one line and that will be it; in another episode, he might be on screen every minute. The show will also be progressive. A story started in one episode might go on for four episodes before it’s finished.”
“We’re also looking for Freddy to have some character help him out in the episodes he’s not in,” Englund goes on . “Personally, I’d like to see sort of a death rock chick whom Freddy enlists to help him. The series looks to be a lock for 22 episodes, and it will probably go 44.” Given Englund’s expected two-year leave of absence from Elm Street, one has to wonder how the actor will react to his self-imposed exile from this main facet of the nightmare world.
“I’m sure I’ll miss it for a while,” he admits. “There’s a definite mental preparation that goes into getting ready for a Nightmare film. Freddy’s been good to me, and I’ve been good for Freddy. Hopefully, the series will take up the slack until another picture is made.” Englund excuses himself for a quick bite of dinner and, for the next few hours, goes basically incognito as the various layers of horror’s worst nightmare. But he does emerge, just prior to returning to the soundstage, to address the question of whether A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master is an appropriate place to end the series if there were never to be a Part 5. Without giving away much in the way of plot particulars, Englund says yes. “There is a sort of completeness, a release at the end of this movie that could be considered an absolution and a finish,” he nods. “We have a scene where the camera goes right down Freddy’s throat and into his guts and soul. It’s taken four movies, but we finally get inside Freddy to see what he’s made of.”