A few months ago, we lost a horror legend when filmmaker Wes Craven passed away. Although Craven made several great horror movies in his four decades of filmmaking, Craven’s single greatest contribution to horror cinema was no doubt the creation of Freddy Krueger.
Craven’s original A Nightmare On Elm Steet is a film that still ranks as one of the greatest horror films of all time. To celebrate Craven’s greatest creation, not to mention Nerdoween, we are ranking all nine Nightmare films (yup, even the remake) from best to worst. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover (that Elm St. is a long street) so let’s get started, shall we?
#1 – A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
As with most horror franchises, it never gets better than that first, classic installment, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is no different. Writer/director Wes Craven hit all the right notes on almost every beat of the movie, and the result is a classic horror film that stands the test of time and still works on audiences to this day.
All the right ideas came together for Craven when he created Freddy Krueger. The premise of a killer who stalks you in your dreams, only to have your die for real if you die while asleep, is such a genius concept, it’s crazy to think it took so long for someone to think of it. Craven was inspired by stories he read in the newspaper about Cambodian refugees who felt they were being stalked by some kind of dream killer, only to never wake up. He then fused those stories to a childhood memory of a hobo who scared him as a child and turned that into Freddy Krueger. The burned face and claw glove were equally genius notions that instantly set Freddy apart from his fellow slashers. And then Craven cast the part perfectly with actor Robert Englund, who brought a twisted glee to the part.
There are so many other things that make the original film great, it’s hard to pinpoint just one. First off, you’ve got the great core concept of the sins of the parents being visited upon their children. This was a potent idea, especially in the Reagan ’80s, when it was a radical notion to suggest that there was maybe a dark side behind the all-American suburban dream. Then you’ve got a great cast of actors as the teens of Springwood (including a young Johnny Depp), who unlike many in the slasher flicks of years prior, came across as real and relatable, not just mindless horny teens being punished for having pre-marital sex.
None of these kids was better than lead character Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), one of horror cinema’s greatest “final girls.” Unlike many so-called “Scream Queens” before her, Nancy broke the mold by doing more than just screaming and running from Freddy. She ultimately takes the fight to him, and kicks his ass. And finally, much like John Carpenter’s Halloween before it, Nightmare has the perfect theme music, crafted by composer Charles Bernstein. ( Friday the 13th, for example, only has an iconic sound effect.)
Sure, there are some things that don’t work about Nightmare 1. Some of the acting choices (especially from country singer Ronee Blakely, who played Nancy’s mother) are questionable, and sometimes the super-low budget shows some of the seams in the production, but ultimately those things are minor quibbles. A Nightmare On Elm Street is just an example of one of those movies where all the right elements came together to create an enduring classic.
#2 – A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Most horror sequels suck, or at least are vastly inferior to the original films. And often especially lame are slasher sequels, which we mostly like just for their camp value. But there’s one great exception to this rule, and it’s A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors. Dream Warriors is the Empire Stikes Back or Godfather II of horror films. It finds ways to expand upon the characters and mythology introduced in the first film and introduce new characters that we instantly like just as much. When it comes to sequels, this one does it all right.
Chuck Russell stepped in as director, but Craven did come back as a producer and writer, and his touch is instantly felt. With the return of Craven also comes the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, who sat out the second Nightmare. The original film’s “final girl” is now a slightly older den mother of sorts to the last surviving children of the parents who killed Freddy. Instead of a typical high school setting, we are introduced to this set of kids in a mental hospital, where they’ve been sent by their parents who don’t know how to deal with their nightmares, and would rather just let their kids become someone else’s problem.
The nightmare sequences are taken to a whole new surreal level in this movie, pushed far more than the budget of the first two movies would allow. Because of this, Freddy’s kills are insanely inventive this time around. Most notable of these nightmare sequences is when Freddy turns into a giant phallic snake and tries to eat a young Patricia Arquette, who plays one of the new kids. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Freddy’s kills in this one.
This movie takes things into an almost comic book level when Nancy shows the kids how to use their dream abilities against Freddy. When they become the titular “Dream Warriors” and take the fight to his realm, the movie becomes a kind of cool, supernatural superhero movie. Add to that the new wrinkles in Freddy’s backstory and mythology about the circumstances surrounding his birth, and this movie is a damn near perfect sequel. It even has the best celebrity cameo of the entire series. Seriously, what’s not to love about Dream Warriors?
#3 – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Three years after Freddy was officially put out to pasture in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, New Line Cinema had a change of heart of about leaving Freddy Krueger dead and buried. Either they just thought more money could still be milked from this franchise, or they realized Freddy’s Dead was an awful ending to such a great saga (not to mention a franchise that literally built their studio into what it was). In any case, they decided to go back to the man who started it all, Wes Craven, for what would eventually be called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
In New Nightmare, Craven creates a meta commentary on the franchise he started, suggesting that what we know as Freddy is really some kind of otherworldly, demonic presence that somehow taps into this fictional being called Freddy Krueger, only to lose his potency as the series got more and more watered down with sequel after sequel. Without having a “host story” to channel his evil through, Freddy begins unleashing his evil into the real world. He starts by going after actress Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in parts 1 and 3. Not only does Langenkamp play “herself”, but so does writer/director Craven. Robert Englund does double duty as himself and the “real” Freddy, who is more terrifying here than he’d been since the second film.
New Nightmare is an effective and inventive horror movie, and it’s a much more fitting finale to the saga Craven started ten years earlier. It’s no surprise that the three best Nightmare films have his direct involvement; it just proves Freddy was most effective when his Daddy was involved. Sadly, the movie wasn’t really appreciated in its day, but Craven would do the meta-horror thing to much greater success with Scream just two years later. Now, some twenty years later, New Nightmare serves as a testament to Wes Craven’s creative genius and is the grand finale that the original Nightmare series truly deserved.
#4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
In terms of commercial success, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master was the peak of the franchise, and one of the most financially successful horror movies of the decade. The previous installment had turned the franchise around, and the hope was that the fourth one would take things even further than Dream Warriors did. That’s not quite what happened, at least creatively speaking. The plot for Nightmare 4 is barely a plot, with Freddy finishing off the last of the Dream Warriors from the previous movie, and then moving on to their friends. That’s your story in a nutshell.
But man, does this movie have some great inventive Freddy kills in it. Who can forget poor bug-phobic Deb turning into a cockroach, or the “soul pizza” with all the tiny, screaming faces of Freddy’s victims? Or Freddy pulling horn dog Joey into the waterbed? Then you’ve got that cool sequence of Freddy sending the characters into a sort of repeat time loop, just to keep them from saving one of their friends. Director Renny Harlin made a pretty decent flick out of a movie that barely has a structure at all, and it’s no wonder he went on to a long career in Hollywood.
The other thing that Part 4 has going for it is a great protaganist/final girl in the form Alice Johnson (Lisa Wilcox). She starts off the film as mousy and shy, a living doormat to her abusive father,but by the end becomes a badass warrior. Alice absorbs the distinct abilities of her dead friends, and ends up taking Freddy on in a big brawl at the climax. The way she ultimately defeats Freddy makes zero sense—something about looking in a mirror and a nursery rhyme—but it results in a scene where the souls of the dead children that Freddy has taken tear him apart from the inside. When cool stuff like that happening onscreen, you kind of forgive the movie for not making a whole lot of sense.
In an ideal world, Dream Master would have been the last Nightmare installment, letting the franchise go out on a reasonbly good entry, before everyone was sick of the series. But Nightmare 4 made a ton of money, the most of any of the films to date, so New Line plunged ahead with not only a fifth Nightmare, but a new television series called Freddy’s Nightmares. The Nightmare merchandise machine was also in full swing by the time Dream Master hit home video, to the point where you could get Freddy dolls and Freddy pajamas and God know what else. The hit status of this movie resulted in way too much Freddy, but the movie itself is still a blast to watch.
#5 – A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
For a while there, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was seen by fans as the worst chapter of the series, and don’t misunderstand me—this movie does a lot of things wrong. Most notably, removing the basic premise of Wes Craven’s original idea (Freddy stalking the dreams of the children of his murderers) was a terrible idea. Then having Freddy possess the body of the main character, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) a young man who has moved into Nancy Thompson’s old house, was another weird choice. Can’t Freddy kill way more kids in the dream realm than in a flesh and blood body? And removing the original theme music by Charles Bernstein was also a tragic mistake.
But Freddy’s Revenge does do some things right. For starters, it’s the last time we see Freddy as legitimately scary. By part 3, he’s in full light everytime he’s seen, and here, he’s still in the shadows, still obscured, and still pretty terrifying. And although 3 and 4 are much better movies, there’s nothing as legitimately scary as Freddy meeting Jesse in the hallway of his house, ripping the flesh off his skull and exposing his brain to him, saying “ You’ve got the body, and I’ve got the brains.” That moment still totally works. The scene where Freddy emerges out of Jesse’s body is also an incredible moment of great effects work. It’s truly disturbing.
And then, of course, there’s all the infamous gay subtext of Nightmare 2, so much subtext that it might as well qualify as just text. Director Jack Sholder, who replaced Wes Craven for the film, denies knowing of any gay subtext when he was making the movie, but screenwriter David Chaskin has admitted to it all in recent years. The gay elements are so pervasive in Nightmare 2 that the movie is getting its own documentary dealing with the subject. All of this stuff makes Nightmare 2 more interesting to watch, even as a cultural artifact of the time it was made.
Is Freddy’s Revenge a really good movie? No, not really, but it is entertaining to watch (sometimes not for the reasons it was meant to be) and it’s at least fun to sit through. The same can not be said for a lot of the rest of the movies in this series.
#6 – Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)
I’ll be the first to admit, Freddy Vs Jason isn’t really what you’d call a good film by any stretch of the imagination. The premise is just way too goofy to make into a real movie. The worlds of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th aretoo dfferent to make a movie that makes a lick of sense. But the movie has so much fun with the premise of Freddy fighting Jason Voorhees that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy it for it’s ridiculous excess. As I said, you can’t make a “real” movie out of this, so New Line and director Ronny Yu made an outright exploitation film instead, but with a Hollywood budget. This movie knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be anything else. But it is truly fun to watch at times.
The movie went through about ten years of development, but the final product was the most financially successful entry in either franchise. After the movie was a hit, rumors abounded that Freddy vs Jason vs Ash was next, or maybe even Freddy vs Jason vs Michael Myers. But just as quickly as this movie came out, New Line had another success with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and the horror remake craze began, ending Robert Englund’s tenure as Freddy. They decided to put all their eggs in a remake basket instead, which is a total bummer. I wish I could visit the alternate universe where we’re on Freddy vs Jason vs Ash vs Michael vs Pinhead vs Chucky by now, and we didn’t have to endure the remake of Craven’s brilliant original film.
#7 – A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
For whatever reason, when it comes to horror franchises, especially those that come out on a nearly yearly basis, the fifth installment is when the general audience has basically said “enough” and starts to move on. It happened with Saw, it’s happening right now with Paranormal Activity, and it happened to Freddy, too. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: Dream Child was the fifth installment in as many years, and after the box office heights of Dream Master, the ticket sales for this one took a big tumble. Many blame it on oversaturation; after the mega success of part 4, there was a Freddy TV show, MTV appearances, and merch eveywhere. People were just Kruegered-out.
While Freddy oversaturation was part of the problem, there’s also the fact that Dream Child mostly just sucks. Having said that, the opening twenty or so minutes are pretty good actually. The movie tries to restore some of the creepy mood from the first films, and also adds some gothic atmosphere to the proceedings. Director Stephen Hopkins even shows us the horror of Freddy’s conception and birth, and those parts are all creepy and great.
The basic premise of the story is sound, too. In part 5, Alice Johnson, the Dream Master, who inherited the power to pull others into her dreams, is now passing that ability to her unborn child. And like most unborn children, it spends almost all of its existence in a sort of dream state. So he’s the perfect pawn for Freddy to use to find and kill new victims.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. The kills in this movie are really lame, especially compared to the really inventive ones in parts 3 and 4. For example, Freddy overfeeds a model and makes her choke, then he turns a guy into a motorcycle, and maybe the worst moment comes when Freddy kills a comic book nerd and becomes “Super Freddy.” At this point, the movie just takes Freddy one step too far into Looney Tunes territory, and it’s all over. Dream Child is the biggest tragedy of the series, because it’s 25% a cool flick, but the rest is just a huge waste of time.
#8 – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
With Dream Child underperforming both with critics and at the box office, New Line Cinema decided to end the franchise with one big last hurrah with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Directed by Rachel Talalay, a line producer on four of the previous films, the movie decided to forgo any notion that this was a horror series in any way. Freddy was completely robbed what was left of his menace. Between riding on a broomstick like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz and killing one of his victims with a Nintendo power glove, this is Freddy at his most Bugs Bunny.
In this “last” installment, ten years had passed since the events of Nightmare 5 (which places the movie in the year 2001, a 2001 that looks amazingly like 1990). Freddy has managed to kill all the children of Springwood, leaving a town filled with crazy adults. Except the adult’s grief and insanity isn’t played for anything but cheap laughs and excuses to have cameos from celebrities of the moment like Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. The new teen characters are all forgettable, and no effort was made into making them remotely interesting, since none of them were going to be coming back anyway.
Freddy’s Dead also makes a couple of other fatal errors that horror franchises often make when they’ve run out of ideas, and that’s the need to explain the entire backstory of the monster. Freddy’s Dead comes up with this half-baked mythology for ancient Dream Demons that give Freddy his powers, an explanation that nobody needed or asked for. Even worse, this movie introduces the idea that Freddy has a long lost daughter, a little girl that was taken away from him. See, that’s why he took away the children of Springwood, as revenge for them taking his daughter away from him. Because just being a perverted child killer wasn’t enough.
In the end, Freddy’s adult daughter (played by Lisa Zane, sister of Billy Zane) is the one who stops dear old dad by taking him out of the dream realm and killing him in the real world. Wait, wasn’t that the exact same way Nancy disposed of Freddy in the very first movie? And that didn’t exactly work then, so why should this? It doesn’t matter, because everything in this movie is lame, and when all is said and done, you just wish that Freddy had received a better finale. Luckily, that eventually happens (see entry #3.) But it’s not with this movie.
#9 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
On its surface, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t the most badly made of the series. You can probably make a solid argument for why it’s better than Freddy’s Dead or maybe even Freddy Vs. Jason. But the 2010 reboot is just bereft of almost any originality whatsoever. From the first frame, it feels like a cash grab made by people who really don’t care at all, a chance to make money off the good name and creative ideas of other people.
Although this century has had some pretty soulless remakes of classic horror films, A Nightmare on Elm Street is perhaps the most insulting of the bunch. This is despite an extremely talented cast that includes well known actors like Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz and Connie Britton.
So what’s so bad about the remake? For starters, the whole thing just looks way too slick. All the grittiness of the original film is gone, replaced with a sleek and shiny car commercial look (the movie’s director, Samuel Bayer, directed the music video for Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit”). I once heard someone comment that in modern horror, everyone looks like they’re made out of cream cheese, with perfect chiseled looks that remove them from being relatable to the average person. That’s never been more true than in the Elm Street remake, where everyone is just damn too pretty, and all in the same way.
Whenever the movie attempts to bring something new to the table, such as the concept of “micro naps,” little moments that Freddy can use to sneak in to your dreams and kill you, they aren’t really fleshed out. The one cool idea the movie presents that’s not in the original–the notion that Freddy maybe didn’t molest the kids of Springwood, and was framed and then murdered–is ultimately not followed through on. By the end of the movie it turns out Freddy did do all those awful things to the kids, they just don’t remember it, because reasons. Add to that the truly awful CGI and a boring and tepid performance by otherwise great actor Jackie Earle Haley, and this remake was just dead on arrival. Let’s just hope the next attempt (and trust there will be one) gets it right.
So what do you think of our rankings of Freddy’s greatest hits? And how would you have ranked the Nightmare films? Let us know in the comments below!
IMAGE: New Line Cinema