A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 was the franchise's biggest film until Freddy vs. Jason (2003). It had the highest gross ($49.3 million) and by far the biggest budget ($13 million). That's more than twice as much as any of those others. It was directed by Renny Harlin, who'd later go on to do Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Cliffhanger and who had recently moved to Los Angeles from his native Finland. He was incidentally still in his twenties at the time and has a cameo in this film as a student in a classroom.
I liked it. I don't know whether that's permitted or not, but what the hell. It looks fantastic, while the story and acting are mostly adequate. I know, I know... but if you can't bring yourself to enjoy a film's few good qualities while forgiving the rest, then you might as well stop watching the horror genre. This film nails what the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise does best. It's a trip. Freddy's dreamworlds are both nasty and surreal in all the right ways. The SFX are jaw-dropping, such as flesh crawling back on to a skeleton, but there's more to it than that. They've brought back the imagination I missed in Part 3. Our heroine walking into an almost empty theatre in which the few patrons are her murdered friends and she ends up getting sucked into the cinema screen to the sound of honky-tonk music. It's in the details too. A tricycle falling down some stairs. There's stuff here you'll see nowhere else, which to me is the mark of an interesting film.
I've heard it said that the filmmakers dreamed up all the special effects and only then started worrying about how to link them together. I don't know if that's true or not, but I can believe it. It's pretty formulaic, with only one original story idea and that's rubbish. The Dream Master feels contrived. "We need our heroine to have super dream powers! What haven't we done yet? Umm..." I suppose there was potential in the idea of a heroine who can absorb the essence of her dead friends and thus take on some of their abilities and personality traits, but it needed a better actress. Lisa Wilcox isn't at all bad by Nightmare on Elm Street standards, but she doesn't have the range this idea required.
Having said that, apparently Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner had an idea for this film involving dream time travel. I'd have loved to see a Nightmare on Elm Street series that ran with every one of Craven's speculative ideas. It would have died at the box office, but it would at least have been different.
The cast is... why am I even talking about the cast? I wanted them dead at the ten minute mark, although I later recanted. Lisa Wilcox is mostly inoffensive when she's not being stretched, while Andras Jones as her brother is almost good. He's subtle and thoughtful. Unfortunately he doesn't have much emotional range. Meanwhile the adults get almost no screen time, thank goodness. New Line learned from the mistakes of Part 3, then. There are only two you'd notice and one of them is the flamboyant bitch played by Brooke Bundy in Part 3 whom I'd wanted to believe really had been decapitated. Sadly not. Blink here and you'll miss her, but slightly more substantial is Nicholas Mele's Mr Johnson. Watch him. Mele's interesting. On the page his role is simply a one-dimensional bastard, but Mele subtly undercuts that and turns him into one of the better parents in an Elm Street film.
There's a bookworm in huge spectacles who should have been the world's biggest cliche, but the actress manages to rise above that. Still more pleasantly, this time the weaker actors tend to die first. These include the survivors of the previous film, all but one of whom are played by their original actors. Patricia Arquette decided she had better things to do. With the exception of Part 2, this series is turning out to have stronger continuity links than I'd expected. For example it won't surprise anyone to see that Part 3's Catholic mumbo-jumbo wasn't enough to finish Freddy, but they have fun picking up where that film left off with a spectacular junkyard scene.
Another of those continuity links would seem to involve a rule about giving a bad girl role to a terrible actress.
As for Freddy Krueger, is that a slippery slope I see? He's wildly entertaining, but the one-liners come thick and fast and Robert Englund again doesn't get on top of all of them. He's not particularly good, really. He clearly loves the role and you can't fault his energy, but there's nothing here to make you think he's anything but an ordinary actor who got lucky. He's great as the cackling killer clown at the heart of this visual extravaganza, but I'd no longer call him frightening. Sick and twisted, yes. However oddly, this doesn't much matter. He's so much fun to watch that he easily lives up to his star billing and helps make the film a hit even by the standards of this popular franchise. However his not being scary does weaken the ending.
There's also nudity, but it's even more dreamlike than last time and again a sign of something weird and supernatural. There's a rule for Elm Street teenagers. If you see tits, Freddy's coming for you.
There's also a silly moment where our heroine is about to light up a cigarette, but then realises she doesn't smoke. This is a clever way to show her having absorbed someone else's character traits, but I couldn't help wondering why a non-smoker should be carrying cigarettes and a lighter in the first place. I suppose she must have unthinkingly nabbed them from... uh, somewhere. Had she been going through the possessions of her murdered friends without realising, then? That's a creepy notion. They should have put it in the film.
One could micro-crit this film to death, but it's also wildly successful at what it's trying to do. It really does look stunning. It has both the budget and the imagination. I loved the cockroach. Even its formulaic nature isn't much of a problem. Structurally it starts creaking around the end of Act Two, but there's a reason formulae get established in the first place. They work. It also has a spectacular method of defeating Freddy, which looks amazing and makes exactly as much sense as any other climax from the series. Personally I liked that ending a lot.
In its own specific way, this film is outstanding. I'd say it earned its success.
Oh, and if you can sit through the horrible end credits music, you'll get to hear Robert Englund rapping. Yes, as Freddy Krueger. I laughed and laughed...