Legends of Horror, Ranked: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A huge, hulking figure, silent as the grave, and wearing some sort of mask, stalks and slaughters a group of teenage stereotypes one dark and stormy night. Sound familiar?

Well it should, because I just described to you what 90% of all slasher films in the 80s looked like, down to exact details. Despite going down in history as absolute legends of the genre, franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ultimately all fell into the same exact framework after a couple of sequels, no matter how unique a starting point they began with. And those are just the big ones. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of terrible, low-budget slasher movies that came crawling out of the woodwork in this era, all sticking to pretty much the same formula, and overall oversaturating the market with a bunch of bland, sparkless copycats.

But one major franchise of the 80s, one brave, crazy slasher series, eschewed the typical trappings of the genre, and dared to be different. Instead of a silent, faceless villain, it would have one with not only a visible expression, but a personality to boot. He’s a wise-cracking, pop-culture-referencing, gleefully sadistic bastard son of a thousand maniacs, and he’s coincidentally also the literal man of your dreams. I’m talking, of course, about the Springwood Slasher himself, Freddy Krueger.

Star of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Freddy is unique amongst his murderous contemporaries in that he’s actually kind of fun. While beginning his tenure as a homicidal dream-demon as a relatively played-straight malevolent menace in Wes Craven’s genius original film, he eventually evolved over time into the malicious joker that we all came to know and love. Like most other franchises, the quality of these films would fluctuate wildly, but the man himself was never anything less than an absolute riot.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is an important landmark in the franchise, because it proved that you could have your “stupid teenagers get butchered” movie while still making some effort to be ever-so-slightly original and creative. You could have an antagonist with charisma, who still inspired fear in young kids who caught a late-night glimpse of a movie that was way too intense for them. In a sea of identical, carbon-copy masked killers, Freddy Krueger dared to show his smiling face, call you a “bitch”, and then, I don’t know, probably turn into a giant snake or something. Dude’s got range, is what I’m saying.

On this, the final week of our journey into the slasher genre’s Big Three, let us now pay homage to perhaps the most fun and inventive of that psychotic Mount Rushmore by counting down Freddy’s best:

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

There is no reason that this movie needs to exist. None. Whatsoever. Another soulless horror remake churned out by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company, 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is one part uninspired retread of Wes Craven’s original classic and one part needless changes to the mythology that make the whole experience far grosser and way less nuanced. With just a pinch of terrible CGI thrown in that only makes me appreciate the practical effects in the original even more. There are some interesting concepts here, namely the idea of waking micro-naps and the possibility of Freddy Krueger being innocent of the crimes he was ultimately lynched for, but instead of sticking with these new, fresh takes on the lore, the film instead decides to go “Nah” at the last minute and reaffirm what we already know about the franchise instead. Why bother remaking something if you’re going to just make a carbon-copy of the source material, only worse? All this, in addition to some lifeless leads and cheesy, cliché jumpscares, make this a Nightmare that’s easily forgotten. Also, Freddy’s a pedophile in this one. So that’s fun. The only real saving grace is Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Freddy, who’s significantly more menacing than the Robert England performance of the character that we’ve all come to know and… well, if not “love” then at least tolerate. But even that can’t save this disaster of a movie.

8. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

As I’ve touched on in my previous rankings of the Friday the 13th and Halloween films, there’s nothing that bogs down a franchise more than unnecessary lore. Backstory is good, in most situations, but from a writing perspective, the more details you fill in about a villain, especially a horror villain, the less scary they become. Writers seem to think that introducing the long-lost relatives of these slasher icons is somehow interesting or compelling, when actually, it just makes the whole thing seem like a bad soap opera. “Gasp! It turns out that ____ was actually the forgotten second cousin-in-law, twice removed, of the crazy guy who’s been killing all those teenagers! Isn’t that shocking and clever?” No, no it is not. Enter Maggie Burroughs, the secret daughter of Freddy Krueger, a supposed twist that contributes absolutely nothing to this embarrassingly corny “final” entry (as if that ever ends up being true) in the franchise that represents the utter height of its excesses and lack of focus. Coupled with some terrible 3D gimmicks and some certifiably bizarre and insane cameos (Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, and Alice Cooper all pop in for roughly 15 seconds of screentime), this movie will have you praying the premise is true, if only so you won’t ever have to sit through another Nightmare film like this.

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

Speaking of unnecessary backstory, time to meet Freddy’s mom! Coming in at the close of the sequels mostly self-contained Dream trilogy, The Dream Child takes place roughly a year after the previous film, with Dream Master final girl Alice expecting a baby. Cue the return of Freddy, and some convoluted scheme to possess the unborn child and be reborn into the world (why he would want to do that, when he’s a virtually unkillable dream demon, is entirely unclear). Along the way, we meet the ghostly specter of Krueger’s mother, a nun who was raped by 1000 maniacs in an asylum, which is the most disproportionate and undue explanation for evil I’ve probably ever seen. Obviously, Mama Krueger is none to pleased with her hellspawn’s career choices, and helps Alice take him out, “for good.” The worst part about this movie isn’t the ridiculous plot or the confusing logistics of its mythology: It’s the fact that its just so… dull. In a Nightmare movie, we expect a certain degree of zany, cartoonishly violent bits of dream-themed terror, which really isn’t present here at all. I think there’s a grand total of three people die in the entire runtime of the film, which is pitifully low for a slasher film. It may not the worst film in the franchise, but The Dream Child is still pretty close.

6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Every slasher franchise has a black sheep. Halloween had Season of the Witch, Friday the 13th had A New Beginning, and A Nightmare on Elm Street has Freddy’s Revenge. It’s not a bad film, really, but it feels so bizarrely disconnected from everything else in the series that I honestly don’t know how to take it. Ostensibly taking place some time after the original, a teenage boy named Jesse, whose family has now moved into the Thompson house from the previous film, begins to have nightmares about a burnt man in a sweater with knives for hands. You know, like you do. But instead of following the rules established for Freddy only a single film ago, Freddy’s Revenge seems to abandon them all completely. Sure, he stalks a few teen dream sequences, but he also runs around in the real world, slashing kids at a pool party. He can also apparently possess people, and is immune to harming anyone protected by… the power of love, I guess? It’s unceasingly crazy, and not always in a good way. It’s also bizarrely homoerotic, which would actually be pretty interesting if they bothered ever addressing it in a significant way. But as it stands, it’s just another unexplained oddity in a film chock full of them. Yet, despite all this, it’s still a surprisingly solid sequel to the first Nightmare, even if it ends up being entirely ignored by later films in the series.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

The middle film in the original run of films, The Dream Master is perhaps appropriately the most middling in quality as well. Not as fun or inventive as Dream Warriors, but not nearly as dull or bogged-down by mythology as The Dream Child, The Dream Master just kind of… exists. It’s one of the more straight-forward films in the franchise (or as straight-forward as a film can be with dream-meddling, shapeshifting demon for a villain), with no crazy prophecies, possession schemes, or ghostly nuns popping up to slow things down. Just good, old-fashioned Nightmare fun. It’s a competently-made film, with a likable cast and some fantastic dream sequences and kills, and probably has the best balance between Freddy’s more menacing and goofier qualities. And yet, there’s something missing. There’s a sense that it’s sort of coasting off of the success of the previous film, and is afraid (ironically) to do anything particularly fresh or new. A formula can be great, but it can also grow stale, and following in the footsteps of such a fresh and exciting predecessor, it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed with the follow-up.

4. Freddy vs. Jason

I already talked about this in my Friday the 13th ranking, but just to reiterate: This movie is a blast. As a Freddy film, it’s not nearly as smart as New Nightmare or as creative as Dream Warriors, but it’s still nowhere near as schlocky as Freddy’s Dead or as mind-numbingly dull as The Dream Child. Freddy’s here to do one thing and one thing only: Cause as much mayhem as possible. And with hulking, hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees at his disposal, he very much succeeds. Stupid as hell in the best possible way, and absolutely dripping in early-2000s cheese, Freddy vs Jason is one of my absolute favorite guilty pleasure movies. Turn off your brain, pour yourself a drink, and enjoy the cinematic equivalent of Monster Energy drink: Terrible for you, but energizing and tasty. There’s nothing wrong with a little movie junk food every once in a while.

3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Pretty much Wes Craven’s trial run for what would eventually become Scream, New Nightmare did meta-horror before it was cool. Taking place in the “real world,” Heather Langenkamp returns to the franchise, not as Nancy Thompson, but as a fictionalized version of herself. Joined by the “real” Wes Craven, Robert Englund, and many other Hollywood cameos, Heather finds herself up against a new manifestation of the fictional Freddy, who’s been given power by all the fear caused by the Nightmare on Elm Street films. It’s a supremely cerebral and high concept film, one that’s equal parts fan service and self-aware deconstruction of the franchise, and probably gives the audience more intellectual credit than any other slasher that came before it. This is a thinking man’s horror movie, one that eschews the typical goofy Freddyisms for a meatier, more complex take on the franchise’s tropes and themes. It may not stick the landing entirely, but it’s pretty damn close. Funny, moody, smart, and actually scary, New Nightmare is proof that an idea can never really die, so long as it can be reinvented.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

For the first time in the Nightmare franchise, the kids fight back! With Wes Craven back in the writer’s seat after taking an absence in Freddy’s Revenge, Dream Warriors takes the Nightmare formula and advances it to its next logical conceptual step: What if Freddy wasn’t the only one who could control dreams? What if he found himself up against a group of lucid dreamers? And what if they were absolutely pissed? Basically an X-Men movie hiding in a mythic slasher flick, the Titular Dream Warriors are probably the most diverse, most fun group of potential victims in a mainstream horror film. All the main characters are residents at psychiatric hospital, which is probably the most natural setting for a Nightmare film to date. Each character realizes that they have equal influence in the dream world as Freddy himself, and proceed to try and take him on in his home turf. They fail, of course, this being a horror movie and all, but the action sequences with the kids as they use their imaginations to resist Kruger’s abilities are easily the most creative and entertaining in the series as a whole. Freddy himself gets some especially gnarly kills (including one excellent bit of puppeteering that’s probably my personal favorite moment in an Elm Street film), and finally starts leaning into the comedy a bit more, before the series would really beat that gimmick into the ground. Plus, returning starts Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon lend some much-needed continuity after the nebulous second film all but ignored it. It’s everything that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street so much fun as a franchise, if slightly undermining its more straight-forward horror roots. It’s not the best Nightmare, but it’s the fan-favorite for sure. And for good reason.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

With the Halloween series, the original is the gold standard to which the rest of the series should be judged by. Likewise, it’s pretty hard to beat the first Nightmare film. One of the few slasher films that I believe can truly be considered near-perfect, A Nightmare on Elm Street took dreamland, the place where we’re the coziest and safest, and made it terrifyingly deadly. It’s the concept in its purest, leanest form, with none of the unnecessary fluff and padding that would come in later sequels. A genius concept, a perfectly terrifying villain, and one of the greatest female protagonists in slasher history solidifies this Wes Craven icon as one of the most inventive, high-concept pieces of mainstream horror ever made. Freddy is more menacing here that he ever will be, not quite the pop-culture-spewing trickster he would eventually become. Robert Englund’s first performance as the character gives off a genuine, sadistic malice that felt wholly brand new in a sea of silent, masked killers. He’s snarky, he’s gleefully evil, and he absolutely wants you dead. Everything about the character that is iconic even now, nearly forty years later, was established in this film, nearly fully formed: The hat, the sweater, the hideously-burned face, and of course, those diabolical finger knives. The film that not only launched Wes Craven into mainstream horror stardom, but also single-handedly saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy (earning it the nickname “The House that Freddy Built”), A Nightmare on Elm Street will go down as one of the greats, not just in the horror genre, but in all of cinema history.

Sadly, after the disastrous reboot in 2010, Freddy seems to have hung up his hat and glove for good. With the exception of an admittedly funny cameo in The Goldbergs, Robert Englund hasn’t returned to the role that made him a horror start in nearly 20 years, and the franchise itself seems to have gone into hibernation as well. There’s talks of an HBO Max series being developed, but these things get reported all the time with no real follow-through, so I’m not holding my breath.

But unlike Friday the 13th, which should frankly probably stay dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street still has a lot of potential as a concept. What’s more boundless and undefined than dreams? With the right creative talent behind it, the series could go anywhere, and it would be a real shame, in my opinion, to let it sit around gathering dust. But even if this is the end for the franchise, it at least had one of the more interesting rides along the way, compared to similar properties of its genre, and it’s legacy is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

The remake notwithstanding, of course.

What’s your favorite Nightmare film? Think Dream Warriors deserves the top spot? Or maybe you think Freddy vs Jason is hot garbage? Let me know what you think!

And, as always, Happy Halloween!

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