Like with any long-running slasher movie franchise, every horror fan has a favorite Nightmare on Elm Street sequel when asked. The most popular response is Dream Warriors, which, based on anecdotal evidence, many fans prefer even to the first film. Some like its follow-up, the Renny Harlin-directed The Dream Master, best. Very rarely, if ever, do Nightmare fans name the fifth installment, 1989’s The Dream Child, as their favorite. It’s the unloved orphan of the franchise, lacking even the novelty of Freddy’s Dead with its 3-D climax and the fact that it’s designed to end the series for good (even if Wes Craven’s New Nightmare would render said closure impotent just a few years later). For many, The Dream Child represents the franchise overstaying its welcome for one film too many before wrapping up. And, yes, the movie has its share of problems both in front of and behind the camera. So while I won’t argue that it’s secretly great—it’s still my fourth or fifth favorite Nightmare movie depending on the day—I do want to make the case that The Dream Child is a better, more ambitious sequel than it typically gets credit for being.
Hastily rushed into production by New Line following the series-high box office success of The Dream Master, Nightmare 5 had the misfortune of being released during a period in which “Freddy Fatigue” had settled in among horror fans. In addition to having already seen four prior films, audiences had witnessed Freddy become the host of his own anthology series (Freddy’s Nightmares), merchandised through collectibles, dolls, and children’s toys, get his own 976 number, appear on MTV, and more. This overexposure hadn’t just robbed the character of his power to frighten us, but also burned audiences out on his schtick. The burnout placed an undue amount of pressure on everyone involved with the movie to distinguish The Dream Child from the series preceding it. That they were able to do so—not in its story, but in the accompanying visuals—should not be taken for granted.
New Line’s rushed development on the film led to a mess of screenplay submissions, including those from celebrated splatterpunk authors David J. Schow, Craig Spector, John Skipp, with the latter two eventually receiving story credits on the movie even though Skipp claims his only surviving contribution is Freddy saying, “It’s a boy!”—a moment prominently featured in all of the movie’s marketing. It was ultimately Leslie Bohem whose screenplay was shot, which finds Freddy attempting to return through the dreams of Alice’s (a returning Lisa Wilcox) unborn child. Directing duties went to Australian filmmaker Stephen Hopkins, who at that point had only the 1987 slasher Dangerous Game to his credit. Though he’s never quite able to elevate the film’s story elements, Hopkins brings fresh imagination and a gothic visual sense to The Dream Child, resulting in a sequel that is arguably the most surreal in the franchise. By the fifth installment, the only real way for a filmmaker to distinguish him or herself (yes, Nightmare is one of the only major horror franchises with an entry directed by a woman) was in the tone or in the visuals.
Hopkins does both. In addition to being the most visually abstract, The Dream Child is the darkest sequel, too—the first in the series to earn itself an “X” rating upon first pass through the MPAA. From its first kill, a surrealist cyberpunk nightmare in which Danny Hassel fuses with his motorcycle, through its final moments in which a grown Freddy attempts to burst forth from his nun mother’s womb, there’s a rough edge to the violence in The Dream Child that sets it apart from the other movies. This is a sequel that, in its uncut version, features a guy getting his entire face ripped off and a woman disemboweled so that her organs can be force-fed to her. It’s nasty stuff.
Part 5 also presents the deepest exploration of Freddy’s origins to date; while bits and pieces of his background were teased out over the course of the previous four films, The Dream Child gives Amanda Krueger (Freddy’s mother) a prominent role and ventures into the asylum where she was raped by “a hundred maniacs,” including Robert Englund in a cameo sans makeup, suggesting that he helped sire Fred Krueger himself. The Dream Child’s willingness to explore what was previously only subtext lends it a maturity not seen since Wes Craven’s original film. Yes, Freddy is still “Party Freddy,” donning a chef’s outfit in one nightmare and transforming himself into a super villain in another, but he’s Party Freddy inside an entry that’s surprisingly dark and adult.
The Dream Child does come up short in several of its characters, though. By Part 5, we’ve entered into Friday the 13th sequel territory in that it’s sort of a copy of a copy—a new group of teenage friends swapped in, each with a single defining character trait, existing solely to be slaughtered in elaborate fantasy sequences. Part of the problem with continuing Alice’s story in The Dream Child is that it asks the audience to accept an entirely new group of friends never before seen or heard of previously. Despite the best efforts of the cast, the characters are thin and generic, seldom believable as a group of people who actually know one another and hang out together.
But The Dream Child deserves some credit for its attempts to be socially conscious, too, bringing up issues and concerns of young people including abortion and eating disorders. It even acknowledges the realities of teen sex without necessarily punishing both characters for the perceived transgression. In fact, it’s the Final Girl who is seen getting it on during the movie’s opening moments (traditionally a no-no in the slasher genre), shot by Hopkins with his trademark abstract stylishness.
While none of these are confronted with much depth, it’s the only entry besides Dream Warriors to acknowledge some of the major issues being confronted by young people. The communication gap between teenagers and their parents has always played a major part in the Nightmare franchise, but The Dream Child makes these concerns even more relevant by presenting real problems that young people may not feel they can discuss with adults. It goes beyond the “sins of the parents” being kept a secret; now, it’s the secrets the teenage characters are holding that become their undoing.
While the cast of supporting characters gets the short shrift, at least The Dream Child does right by Lisa Wilcox by continuing and completing Alice’s arc, which is unlike that of any Final Girl before her or since. Watching Lisa Wilcox go from meek, mousy friend to major-league ass-kicker to grieving girlfriend to protective mother over the span of two movies is deeply satisfying, particularly in a sub-genre so often defined by thinly drawn or static characters. And, for the first time in the history of the Elm Street franchise, Alice represents a character returning from a previous installment and actually living to see the end of a sequel. Those before her were not so lucky. If nothing else, The Dream Child should be recognized for having Kelly Jo Minter survive—a despairing rarity for a black character in a slasher film.
I don’t expect that Nightmare 5 is suddenly going to become everyone’s favorite in the series, nor am I trying to do that thing that so many horror fans do, where I falsely inflate the merits of a movie simply because enough time has passed. But it is a movie that I began to reassess after first seeing the Never Sleep Again documentary and realizing just what Hopkins, the cast, and crew were up against in trying to get The Dream Child to the screen. I came to appreciate the darker tone and the insane visuals, particularly in the movie’s bravura climax. The cinematography, the production design, and the effects team bring beauty to the nightmares and The Dream Child does what we so often want a horror sequel to do: it delivers more of what we love about a series while finding ways to carve out its own identity. Tasked with making yet another Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Stephen Hopkins and company instead brought dark imagination and dazzling visuals to The Dream Child and, in the process, gave birth to something special.