Hard though it might be to believe, just after Halloween this year A Nightmare On Elm Street will turn thirty. That’s right, everyone’s favourite child murderer with dream powers is about to enter his third decade of existence.
Even after all these years, Freddy Kreuger remains one of the definitive horror icons. Any costume shop without his brown hat and blade glove should instantly go out of business. There was something special about that dream killer idea that Wes Craven dreamt up that simply won’t go away. Whether it’s his pop surrealism murder tactics, his burn-ward face, or his awful, awful, awesome one-liners, Freddy Krueger has done something to worm his way into your blackened little heart.
Since this is the week of Halloween, when we all like to get sentimental about our monster memories and a milestone anniversary is fast approaching, we here at CGM decided it was time to honor Mr. Krueger. So, after many all-nighter viewing sessions with an ill-conceived pizza menu, I’ve revisited each and every one of Freddy Krueger’s screen appearances and am here to provide a definitive ranking of The Nightmare On Elm Street franchise.
I’m going from the worst to the best to remind you of the crap before basking in the glory of the masterpieces. If you’re wondering why the NES videogame wasn’t included, that’s because you haven’t played it. Sure, the first two entries on this list are total failures, but at least they were worth revisiting for the sake of this article. That game can go to hell and when it does, tell em’ Freddy sent ya!
10) Freddy’s Nightmares (1988, TV series)
If you want definitive proof that Freddy Krueger’s popularity soared improbably high in the 80s, then realize that the character got his own TV series in between his fourth and fifth movie. That’s just absurd (well, not as absurd as the fact that dolls of the child murderer were made and marketed to kids at the same time, but I digress). The concept was to make a Twilight Zone style horror anthology series with Freddy hostin’ and wise-crackin’. It’s not a bad idea and Tobe Texas Chainsaw Massacre Hooper was even hired to direct the pilot about Krueger’s origin. How can that fail?
Well, how about through a budget that makes public access television look like a Michael Bay blockbuster? This show was pathetically cheap and executed in such an amateurish manner that not only was it never scary, it was even too bad to be campy. Sure, Robert Englund got to bring his Krueger shtick into homes for 2-3 minutes per episode, but other than that, the series is an absolute embarrassment to the franchise. Never watch it. Not even out for the sake of irony.
9) A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010, remake)
From the moment it was announced, no one was excited about the Nightmare On Elm Street remake. Sure, advancements in special effects technology could theoretically have been used to take Freddy’s dream killings to new heights, but given that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes was responsible for the production, it was safe to say there would be no fun or imagination allowed. Nope, the Platinum Dunes company mandate was all about sucking the fun out of 80s horror franchises as if audiences wanted to see their favorite characters in po-faced reduxes.
Englund didn’t even get to play Freddy in favour of Jackie Earle Haley’s humourless portrayal, the limits of how old of an actor can play a teenager was stretched to the breaking point, and Krueger’s implied child molestation past was brought front and center in a sleazily exploitative manner. Worst of all, the filmmakers didn’t even really get a chance to go nuts in a digital dreamscape. Instead, most of the kills from the original film were replayed tediously.
\This remake was a horribly missed opportunity to bring back a beloved horror icon for a new generation of horror audiences sadly bereft of genre icons of their own. It’s also absolute garbage and arguably the worst movie shat out of Platinum Dunes’ horror remake mandate. The only reason it’s ranked above Freddy’s Nightmares is because the production looks professional. Beyond that, the pile of crap is the worst.
8) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Now we get into the original Freddy film franchise, and it should be noted from this point on all of the titles are worth seeing. Even when a vintage Freddy movie was bad (and Freddy’s Dead is certainly awful), they were at least fun and campy. Enjoying Freddy’s Dead sure takes a lot of sympathy, nostalgia, and irony though.
At this point New Line Cinema realized that the Freddy franchise was growing stale, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to try and ring a few more dollars out of their cash cow with a big send off. There are many problems with Freddy’s Dead like the fact that his death doesn’t feel any more significant than it did in the previous five movies, the horrible acting, pathetic writing, and gimmicky 3D climax (the main character actually puts on a pair of cardboard 3D glasses before the finale as a signal for the audience to do the same.
No, I’m not joking). The real problem here, though is the tone. Freddy can be funny, but this movie is downright silly and cartoonish in a way that goes too far. You’ll know you’re in trouble when Freddy’s first appearance comes in a Wicked Witch/Wizard Of Oz reference and then cringe at the Rosanne Barr/Tom Arnold cameo, but the step too far is the infamous Power Glove kill scene. This movie is a complete and utter disaster that killed off Freddy more through sucking than with any narrative twist. It’s good for a laugh though, just never in the way the filmmakers intended.
7) A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
The Dream Child’s poor box office performance and general crappiness was the reason why New Line killed off the character that made their company, but at least it’s mildly better than Freddy’s Dead. The biggest problem is that the movie is a confused mess.
The film was rushed into production after The Dream Master was the most financially successful horror movie of the 80s. Several scripts were written at once and crammed together, and the uneven movie sure feels like it. Part of the story is a weird anti-abortion rant, part of it is an exploration of Krueger’s rape-tastic conception, part of it is a goofy Freddy romp, and part of it is an attempt to return the series to a serious tone.
By attempting to turn Nightmare On Elm Street 5 into so many different things at once, the resulting movie is a jumble of ideas that satisfies none of its goals. Yet, because so much money was sunk into the production, there are a few spectacular dream sequences (including a Tetsu-inspired bit of metallic body horror involving a car fusing with its driver).
However, the movie also features arguably the worst dream sequence of the franchise, in which a skateboarding Freddy chops up a paper teen in a comic book world that’s not even close to funny or scary. So, it’s a hit-and-miss affair with an emphasis on the misses. This is the Freddy movie to watch only if you’re desperate.
6) A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Now we finally get into the good Freddy movies, even if this one stretches the definition of the label “good.” Freddy’s Revenge was cranked out quickly after the success of A Nightmare On Elm Street with Wes Craven sadly and unceremoniously booted out of the franchise he created. The movie plays fast and loose with the Elm Street rules and continuity, climaxing with Freddy awkwardly entering the real world to crash a pool party.
It’s nowhere near as creative as its predecessor and is oftentimes straight-up bad. However, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to watch in the right state of mind with a few genuine plus sides. First up, the flick features a few outstanding special effects sequences like an opening dream scene that expanded into elaborate fantasy in a way Craven couldn’t afford the first time, one amazingly disgusting scene of Freddy bursting out of the body of the protagonist, and a spectacular meltdown finale.
Beyond that, the movie is a hilarious monument to 80s cheese featuring horrible hair, ugly fashion, ludicrous acting, a show-stopping dance number, and a handful of genuine wtf moments (seriously, what’s with the killer bird?). Then there’s the weird gay subtext so overt that it’s pretty much text. Screenwriter David Chaskin decided to make his Freddy movie about a teen boy coming to terms with the weird feelings inside of him (literally Freddy, figuratively and obviously homosexuality) and somehow, no one involved in the production noticed.
Freddy’s Revenge is overtly a closeted gay parable (the scenes in which a coach is whipped to death with a towel in a locker room and when our hero breaks into his best friends room to tell him about the weird feelings he’s experiencing need to be seen to be believed) and given the era in which it was produced, that makes this sequel oddly subversive and even special. So, Freddy’s Revenge is a pretty damn interesting and fun little flick, even if it’s highlights aren’t always intentional.
5) Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)
Freddy Vs. Jason was an epic horror icon throw-down a full decade in the making. Jason Goes To Hell infamously ended with Freddy’s glove emerging from the ground to pull Jason’s goalie mask to hell and set up a face off follow up. Unfortunately, it took ten years and a seemingly endless stream of screenwriters to make this fanboy-wet dream a reality. What finally emerged is no masterpiece, but it is a hell of a lot of fun and really what else was a movie called Freddy Vs. Jason ever going to be? Freddy brings Jason back to life to kill teenagers and regain his powers through fear.
Then once Freddy has his powers again, he finds that Jason is killing teens too fast for him to get in on the action. So they fight each other for the last 20 minutes of the movie over the right to kill teenagers. Honestly, what more could you want?
With Hong Kong action and Bride Of Chucky director Ronny Yu in charge, the tone is playfully tongue-in-cheek and the monster-on-monster action is spectacular (Jason’s final attack on Freddy was a stroke of genius). Even if you were disappointed with this movie in theaters, you really should watch it again. With realistic expectations, it’s hard to hate Freddy Vs. Jason. This is B movie bliss with a bullet…and a knife glove…and a machete.
4) A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
In the 80s horror boom, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master was a genuine blockbuster. It made more cash than any other genre outing in the decade and looking at it today, it’s easy to see why. Is it the best Freddy movie? Absolutely not.
However, it is slick, imaginative, endlessly entertaining, and the most effective of the purely silly later Freddy flicks. Director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2: Die Harder) was the man in charge, and he shot the dream sequences in a style that fused MTV ADD, action movie gloss, splatsick humor, and just plain gross imagery.
Some of the best dream kills of the entire series are included here, especially the nauseating pizza chow-down and the incredible roach motel. The Dream Master also has impressive scale for a horror flick with universally stunning effects. Plus, Harlin was the first director in the Elm Street series to treat Freddy as the star.
The kids are just pawns in Freddy’s game and as creepy or disgusting as the nightmares might be, the audience is always invited to have as much fun as Krueger. The Dream Master is no masterpiece, but is possibly the most purely entertaining entry in the franchise. That’s a reason why this movie was such a hit at the time and it’s the same reason why it holds up so well over 20 years later.
3) Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
New Nightmare is by far the most divisive entry in the Elm Street franchise amongst fans and that’s always struck me as odd. Wes Craven’s meta-horror classic about the character and concept of Freddy Krueger haunting the people who created him plays as pure fan service. The first movie is quoted and referenced cleverly and constantly.
Heather Langenkamp returns with possibly the finest performance of her career, Craven dreams up some ingenious concepts, and most importantly Freddy returns to his dark n’ evil roots. Yet, many Nightmare fans hate it because the humor of the sequels is gone and much of the first half depends on psychological scares and big ideas rather than hack n’ slash theatrics. I get it. Freddy’s famous for his slasher fun.
Yet, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is such a brilliant exploration of how creations can turn on their artists, such a detailed a love letter to the original Nightmare On Elm Street, and so ambitiously creepy that I can’t help but love it more every time I see it.
I’m not surprised the movie died a death at the box office given that A) It proved killing off Freddy was a publicity courting cheat and B) it’s really a mature and adult horror movie coming from a franchise that was aimed purely at teens for five consecutive sequels. However, now that time has passed and everyone is aware of what Wes Craven’s New Nightmare actually is, it’s time to recognize that the film isn’t just one of the best entries in the Nightmare franchise, but also one of the best American horror films of the 90s.
2) A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
A big hit and perpetual fan favorite, it’s arguable that A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors had a bigger impact on the public perception of the franchise than even the original. Wes Craven was allowed to return to the series for this threequel and helped guide it back to the roots by keeping Freddy purely in the dream world, while also adding the element of teens with their own dream world powers who could fight Krueger on his home turf.
From there, Chuck Russell (The Mask) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) expanded the scale of the series exponentially, with Freddy’s nightmare twisting reality to the limits of rubbery 80s effects technology (the infamous puppet nightmare might be the single highlight of the entire franchise).
Patricia Arquette delivered the best lead performance of all the sequels, and Heather Langenkamp, to add continuity to the expanding franchise. Then, of course, there’s Robert Englund’s Freddy, who transformed into a wise-cracking ghoul who loves his job and has a perverted sense of irony. The movie marked the formation of the silly Freddy era and is filled with laughs (intentional and otherwise) without diluting the scares or threats. It’s likely this franchise would have ended as a trilogy if this sequel weren’t so damn good. Instead, it helped turn A Nightmare On Elm Street into arguably the definitive horror franchise of the 80s. Oh and that Dokken theme song? Priceless
1) A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Finally, there’s only one option to top this list and that’s the original Wes Craven masterpiece that started it all. It’s easy to forget that it took years of struggle for Craven to actually make his most famous film because in the early 80s fantasy horror movies were considered hopelessly out of style. Craven ingeniously fused the popular slasher movie structure with a nightmare killer that brought surrealism into the mainstream.
The concept of the sins of Elm Street’s parents coming back to haunt their children in their dreams is potent. The design of Krueger and Englund’s deeply unsettling portrayal tapped into primal fears. Even the immense budget limitations that Craven faced worked to his advantage. All of the dream kills in the movie take place in real world settings that Krueger enters and distorts.
Safe confines that we all share transform into sheer terror (especially the comfort of sleep) and it’s difficult to distinguish the dream world from the real world until Freddy pops up for the kill. Heather Langenkamp delivers one of the great heroines of the horror genre (her boyfriend, played by up-and-comer Johnny Depp ain’t bad either) and the synthesizer score creeps under the skin.
It’s an ingenious piece of low budget filmmaking that deserved every inch of its success. Sure, it’s cheesy and distractingly cheap at times, but that only adds to the fun. A Nightmare On Elm Street is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror films ever made and the fact that it lead to possibly the finest horror franchise of the 80s is just icing on the cake (or should it be “the screaming faces on the soul pizza?”)