Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The fourth movie in the massively successful Nightmare on Elm Street horror franchise was A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master; it’s a direct continuation of the story from 1987’s Nightmare on Elm Street 3, in which the survivors of that film have been released from the psychiatric hospital, but still find themselves being stalked by the horribly disfigured child killer Freddy Krueger, who has the ability to murder people in their dreams. The film stars Lisa Wilcox, Danny Hassel, Tuesday Knight, and Robert Englund in his iconic role as Krueger, and was directed by Renny Harlin, who was helming his first major studio feature film following the success of his 1987 English-language debut, the low-budget horror movie Prison. The film was actually one of the best reviewed films of the series, with special praise being given to the surprisingly insightful screenplay by Brian Helgeland, and especially the special effects and design; the critic in the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time that the film was ‘by far the best of the series, a superior horror picture that balances wit and gore with imagination and intelligence’.

One thing that the Nightmare on Elm Street series could never seem to do, however, was maintain musical consistency. The first movie was scored by Charles Bernstein, who set the overall tone and established a recurring main theme; Elm Street 2 was by Christopher Young in one of his earliest horror outings; and Elm Street 3 was by a pre-Twin Peaks Angelo Badalamenti. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 introduced a fourth composer to the franchise in the shape of Craig Safan, who had plenty of experience in the horror genre, and had also enjoyed some success scoring hit movies like The Last Starfighter in 1984 and Remo Williams in 1985. Unfortunately, like those that came before him, Elm Street 4 would not prove to be one of his more lauded works. I’m not sure what it is about these movies but, for some reason, it tends to bring out the most abstract and tonally impenetrable writing in their composers. I suppose, in one respect, the fact that this defiantly aggressive and harsh electronic soundscape persisted over the course of the entire series is commendable – at least the franchise had an overarching sound as a whole – but as actual music, it takes a great deal of patience and tolerance to get into.

Craig Safan comes from a jazz background, and has a great deal of experience bringing improvisational techniques into his writing, and he seems to have adopted some of that methodology here. I’m not saying that the music sounds made up on the spot, but a lot of the music feels organic and spontaneous, reactionary, with occasionally jarring shifts in tone and timbre within cues, but with no immediately apparent recurring melodic or thematic ideas to tie it all together. It’s wholly electronic, written for a bank of 1980s synthesizers and keyboards and emulators which pulse and throb with all manner of rhythmic devices, and often has a sharp, harsh, industrial tone that mirrors the hissing pipes and clanking metals of Freddy’s preferred junkyard home.

To illustrate the recurring themes of dreams and nightmares, Safan coats his score with a layer of high, droning electronic washes, creating a moody ambiance that surrounds everything in a sort of synthesized fog. Some of these ideas will remind people of classic 1980s John Carpenter scores, or perhaps of the Stephen King horror scores by Tangerine Dream. And then, once in a while, he drops in a brief statement of Charles Bernstein’s iconic main theme, to remind us that we are indeed watching and listening to a Nightmare on Elm Street movie – you can hear it clearly in the opening “Kristen’s Haunted Dream,” and later in “Freddy’s Back”.

Several cues do stand out. “Freddy’s Back” uses sampled vocal ideas to add an almost religioso overtone to the music – Krueger as someone’s idea of an avenging angel, perhaps? – as well as a sort of twisted fairground idea, and a swaggering rock music edge with throbbing bass guitars and drum pads that give Freddy’s persona the wisecracking scenery-chewing vibe that he adopted as the film series progressed. “Joey’s Wet Dream” is oddly romantic, with a dreamy variation on Bernstein’s main theme, but it ends with a ragged and aggressively obnoxious electronic onslaught that clearly does not underscore a happy ending. “Drugged to Death” is almost hallucinatory, and difficult to describe, coming across like a deconstructed fairy tale crossed with a bad acid trip suffered while listening to Bobby McFerrin.

“Rick’s Kung-Fu Death” revisits the religioso choral ideas, and uses what sounds like a sampled pan flute to create a stereotypical reference to the sounds of the Orient, gradually building them both layer-by-layer into an abrasive action-horror cue filled with a nerve-shedding set of pulses, thumps, ticks, and shrill electronic textures. “Freddy’s Pizza Restaurant” is an odd piece of electronic lounge jazz which would sound entirely out of place were it not for the surrealist tone of the score as a whole. “Debbie Checks In/Time Circles” and “Sheila Sucks Face” are both deeply unsettling, as they feature what sounds like a distorted sampled woodwind instrument, which makes a noise like the middle of a toilet roll when you blow into it.

“Theater Madness” has a sense of scope and gravitas and showmanship to it with its sampled piano, staccato rhythmic scales, and frantic neo-classical pacing. “Freddy’s Calliope” builds on an idea heard briefly earlier in the score by using the sound of a fairground calliope to further illustrate the notion that Freddy is increasingly acting like a twisted circus ringmaster, gleefully torturing and tricking his victims as part of his own demented carnival. Unfortunately the finale cue, “Alice Battles Freddy,” is chaotic and all-over-the-place, never really rising to the apocalyptic heights that the film clearly aspired to, while the toccata and fugue organ music in “Corpus Krueger” combines jarringly with the stabbing synth tones and the incongruously soothing final seconds, ending the score on a somewhat unsatisfying note.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 certainly has some clever ideas, and Craig Safan is never anything less than creative when it comes to bringing interesting textures and tonal sound designs to the table, but unfortunately the whole thing never really coalesces into a score in terms of it carrying an actual story. It just sort of bangs and clangs and thumps along for 40 minutes or so, hinting at overarching themes to do with dreams and death and religion, but it’s too haphazard and random to ever feel truly satisfying from that point of view. From a purely listening perspective, too, it’s a very difficult score to connect with; Safan’s electronics are intentionally harsh and dissonant, so anyone with an aversion to this sort of writing might not find much to latch on to either. In the end, this really only comes with a recommendation for fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise as a whole, or anyone who really digs the 1980s electronic horror music sub-genre.

Buy the Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Kristen’s Haunted Dream (3:44)
  • Freddy’s Back (4:37)
  • Kincaid Killed In Junkyard (1:32)
  • Joey’s Wet Dream (1:40)
  • Drugged to Death (3:18)
  • Alice Lured Into Dream (2:28)
  • Rick’s Kung-Fu Death (3:15)
  • Freddy’s Pizza Restaurant (1:58)
  • Debbie Checks In/Time Circles (4:24)
  • Sheila Sucks Face (2:51)
  • Theater Madness (1:38)
  • Freddy’s Calliope (1:51)
  • Alice Battles Freddy (3:55)
  • Corpus Krueger (3:11)

Running Time: 40 minutes 22 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-52032 (1988)

Music composed and arranged by Craig Safan. Nightmare theme written by Charles Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by Michael B.. Edited by Earl Ghaffari. Score produced by Craig Safan. Album produced by Tom Null and Richard Kraft.

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