Depending on who you ask, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is acknowledged as one of the greatest slasher movies of all time … or as the greatest slasher of all time. We certainly don’t disagree with that assessment—the original installment ranks as our #2 slasher on the list of the 50 best slasher films in history. The only movie that beats it is Halloween, and I mean, come on … it’s Halloween. It’s basically untouchable.
And yet, there’s a part of us that still leans toward Nightmare. Of the “big three” slasher franchises, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street that could boast the most “complete” and imaginative of original installments—a benefit of having come along after Halloween and Friday the 13th, building upon the examples and tropes they established.
And then, there’s the man himself: Freddy Krueger, the straw that stirs the drink. The scion of an era when slasher villains were typically shadowy figures, à la Michael Myers or the masked giallo villains of the ’60s and ’70s, or unstoppable brutes like Jason Voorhees, Freddy was an entirely new kind of killer, one who took sadistic delight in playing with his victims and manipulating their minds. A streak of black humor in the original Nightmare eventually blossomed into a full-on obsession with splatter comedy and one-liners, creating a character that inspired endless imitation among lesser films. But none of them could match A Nightmare on Elm Street in terms of visual resplendence and evocative settings.
Ultimately, that’s the real hook of Nightmare as a series—its anchor to the world of dreams. In a dream, anything can happen, and as a result, anything can happen in one of these films. The simple conceit that Freddy Krueger is a magical killer who can stalk and murder you in your dreams was one that opened up endless creative options to a new generation of horror directors, writers and effects artists. So thanks, Mr. Wes Craven. You changed the game, and not for the last time in your career, either.
It’s now been eight years since the last Nightmare entry, its much-derided 2010 reboot with Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger, and it’s been 15 years since original actor Robert Englund last donned the bladed glove in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. Could there still be time for a resurgence? Would a 71-year-old Englund climb into that makeup one more time, if asked?
In the meantime, we pay tribute to the legacy of A Nightmare on Elm Street by ranking the entire series to date.
Director: Rachel Talalay
As the ’80s came to a close, the slasher genre as whole was running out of steam—or it might be more accurate to describe the sensation as smashing into a brick wall, in terms of how abruptly many of the films released went from “fun” to “exhausting.” Final Nightmare is a textbook example of everything that went wrong with slashers during this period, as well as being a cautionary tale of what a franchise looks like when it overextends itself to the point of exhaustion, in a way not too different from the mess that is Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. It simply feels paper thin—a cynical, depleted cash grab full of random celebrity cameos that had completely lost track of the spirit of the series, forcing Wes Craven to return for New Nightmare in 1994, just to salvage Freddy’s economic viability. There’s even some completely gratuitous 3D sequences, à la Friday the 13th Part 3D.
Continuing to intensify the goofier aesthetic seen to a lesser extent in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Final Nightmare more or less abandons any serious attempt at being scary in favor of kooky, sophomoric humor. Freddy is never less threatening than he appears here, a feeling that is only compounded by the threadbare script’s decision to retcon the villain’s history once again to now include a wife and child. In fact, narrative impetus barely exists in this film at all—the characters simply wander from set piece to set piece in lackadaisical fashion, while almost most of the film’s elements seem cribbed from superior entries in the series. The group of troubled shelter kids recall the hospital bunch of Dream Warriors, but without any of their likability or characterization, while the plan to bring Freddy into the “real world” and kill him there is essentially exactly the same as in the 1984 original. In fact, the only thing worse than Final Nightmare’s stolen ideas are its original ones—like the thought that the entire town of Springwood, Ohio, could be turned into a ghost town of dead children and insane parents without anyone outside even noticing.
If not for the restorative powers of New Nightmare, this would likely have been the last time we ever saw Freddy Krueger, and it would have been a piteous going away party.
Director: Samuel Bayer
This was just a practically unwinnable assignment from the get-go—although props to Platinum Dunes and New Line for taking a chance on a first-time director in the form of Samuel Bayer, and casting a solid actor in the form of Jackie Earle Haley. There were reasons to be cautiously optimistic, going into the Nightmare reboot … but ultimately, the atmosphere just wasn’t there. Nightmare movies are supposed to be fun, but this one is dour and lifeless.
Obviously, the absence of Robert Englund is a massive blow. You can replace infinite numbers of Michael Myers portrayers, and you can change the man behind the mask when it’s Jason Voorhees, but no slasher villain is so defined by an actor’s portrayal as Freddy is with Englund, for better or worse. Jackie Earle Haley tries to play it straight, echoing back to the more frightening, sadistic Freddy of the original Nightmare, but even that Freddy had a sick sense of humor, whereas Haley’s version lacks personality and vivaciousness in comparison—and that’s not even getting into this film’s unsettling choice to make Freddy’s previously implied pedophilia more overt and canonical. Likewise, Rooney Mara isn’t up to the task of stepping into Heather Langenkamp’s shoes, and has a tendency to look ashamed of herself for appearing in a slasher remake rather than embracing the scream queen mantle.
Perhaps a more visually dynamic director might have been able to give the Nightmare reboot some life, but the final results are coldly impersonal. With that said, I’d rather watch this again than the peak absurdity of Final Nightmare.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
There were plenty of horror fans deriding the Nightmare on Elm Street series for jumping the shark after The Dream Child, but compared with Final Nightmare there’s much more that can be salvaged here. This is a Nightmare entry of peaks and troughs, high points and low. It brings back Alice, the final girl of the previous installment, once again portrayed by Lisa Wilcox, but her character feels like a shell of her assertive former self, which is a shame after a solid outing in The Dream Master. Instead, the story literally turns inward, as the plot revolves around Freddy’s attempt to feed souls into and thereby possess the spirit of Alice’s unborn child. This likewise leads to a loosening of the established “dream rules” that is somewhat kayfabe-breaking, making the implication that Freddy can, for instance, attack people during the daytime when the unborn baby is asleep.
On the other hand, The Dream Child can boast some of the series’ grossest individual deaths, with the most famous highlight being the force-feeding death of Greta, who distends in unrealistic (but weirdly disturbing) makeup that recalls Eraserhead in particular. These bits save the film from the bottom of the barrel, but any headway it occasionally manages to make with well-shot nightmare sequences is undone by the intense focus on Freddy’s backstory and mother, an overwrought mythology that manages to even undermine Amanda Krueger’s previous involvement in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Ultimately, Dream Child is one of the most unfocused entries in the series—occasionally pretty to look at, but bereft of effective characters and confused as hell in its internal logic. It’s ambitiously loony.
Director: Jack Sholder
Freddy’s Revenge is undoubtedly the most difficult film in this series to evaluate in 2018, precisely because it’s seen so much attention and reevaluation in recent years, thanks to its famously gay subtext—although truly, the film is so overtly homoerotic that “subtext” is giving it far too much credit for subtlety. Attempting to strip away the ironic camp appeal to get at the film underneath, Freddy’s Revenge stands out as the odd duck, black sheep of the franchise. Our “final boy,” Jesse, is a seemingly closeted high school student who is menaced by Freddy in a way that is considerably different from any other entry in the series, with Freddy attempting throughout to possess Jesse’s body and drive him to kill—a considerably more passive outlet than Freddy’s typical modus operandi. Likewise, this isn’t quite the quip-happy Krueger that is present from Dream Warriors onward, instead finding himself in a middle ground between scary and silly.
That isn’t to say that Freddy’s Revenge doesn’t have its over-the-top moments, though—they just tend to come from its oddball supporting characters, like the (also gay) gym coach, or Jesse’s hilariously overbearing father, played by a scenery chomping Clu Gulager. There’s few moments in the entire series more hilariously strange than Freddy somehow causing the family parakeet to go berserk and explode, only for Jesse’s father to instantly blame his own son’s supposed drug addiction for a spontaneous avian explosion. Ultimately, Freddy’s Revenge mostly lives on in the pop cultural canon today because of the enduring examination of its sexual subtext, but it also stands out just enough as a dedicated Nightmare entry to put it solidly in the middle of the pile. It certainly isn’t the disaster that some fans make it out to be.
Director: Ronny Yu
Like Freddy’s Revenge, Freddy vs. Jason is a bit difficult to rate, because it ultimately comes down almost entirely to a single factor: How much sheer pleasure do you derive from the idea of Freddy Krueger vs. Jason Voorhees, in a battle to the death?
Suffice to say, Freddy vs. Jason really isn’t much of a movie. The plot is a convoluted mess of contradictions to previous films in both series (Jason is afraid of water now?), and the human characters in the center of it are uniformly unmemorable. In fact, the film manages the odd feat of being considerably more Freddy-centric in terms of plot, while feeling much more like a Friday the 13th entry in terms of characters and kills. The early 2000s time period doesn’t do it any favors in the nostalgia or visual department, and it takes a while to put all of its pieces into motion.
HOWEVER. Once the promised “Freddy vs. Jason” interactions actually get going in earnest, many of the film’s other failings begin to seem inconsequential. The battle between these two slasher kingpins is awesomely, titanically stupid—and it truly is the very best kind of “stupid.” From its beginnings in the dream realm, where Freddy obviously holds the upper hand, to its eyeball-stabbing, arm-ripping conclusion in reality, the last 20 minutes or so of Freddy vs. Jason represents some of the best horror movie wish-fulfillment you’re ever going to see in a feature film. There’s nothing complex or particularly triumphant about it from an artistic standpoint; it’s more like the contents of a fanfic come to life, the slasher movie equivalent to a kaiju movie with two giant monsters trampling Tokyo. It’s impossible not to chuckle with bemusement, at the very least. It’s almost enough to make us wish we saw the Round 2 sequel promised by the cheekily winking decapitated head of Krueger in the final scene—the last time that Englund has portrayed the character to date. If he never does return, it was at least a better ending for Freddy than Final Nightmare, that’s for sure.
Director: Renny Harlin
The Dream Master is the entry where things start to go off the rails for the Nightmare franchise, in ways both appreciably silly and ultimately damaging. If Freddy’s increased humor in Dream Warriors was seen by many as a positive or iconic quality for the character, it’s The Dream Master where it arguably starts to go too far, undercutting any menace that he might have left.
Still, I sort of love this entry for a few reasons. First, it features the surviving, returning ne’er-do-wells of Dream Warriors, although they’re really only around to be stylishly killed off in its opening minutes by a rejuvenated Freddy. That includes previous final girl Kristen, unfortunately recast since the last outing, in an appearance that nicely subverts the audience’s expectations by passing the torch to new final girl Alice, who is raised from “supporting character” to “protagonist” in the course of the film itself. Her growth as a character is nicely paralleled by the silly way in which she gains the “dream powers” of each friend who is killed by Freddy, extending the continuity of Dream Warriors in a way that is logically consistent.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this entry just has some great kills. The waterbed sequence is classic cheese—a little titillation, a little blood, a classic one-liner, and the bit with Mom finding her son’s body entombed in his own waterbed is a great touch. But one of the best deaths of the entire series goes to poor Debbie, who is transformed into a cockroach by Freddy in a sequence that features some truly disturbing body horror elements, punctuated by classic Krueger humor. All in all, The Dream Master can boast a solid final girl, fun characters and cool deaths, and those are the trifecta that make for a quality Nightmare entry.
And yes, it has sunglasses Freddy.
Director: Wes Craven
After Final Nightmare, it’s safe to say that this series could easily have just faded away into the legacy of ’80s slashers. As a character, Freddy Krueger had been gradually stripped of all his potency and cultural cache, and one imagines that even Robert Englund must have grown tired of reatreading the same ground in self-parodic fashion. For Nightmare to continue at all, it needed a spiritual cleansing, and thankfully, Wes Craven was still around to resurrect what he created a decade earlier.
New Nightmare simultaneously revives the series, even while Craven tinkers with some of the same meta DNA that he would use to make Scream a massive hit, two years later. All of the key players are back, most notably Heather Langenkamp, who is given a delicate acting assignment of playing “Heather Langenkamp, actress” as she confronts the reality that the Freddy Krueger character is somehow finding his way into “the real world.” Make no mistake, New Nightmare can seem a little self-congratulatory at times, especially when Wes Craven is on screen gabbing about his writing process, but the rest of the meta conceit is just so much fun that it’s easy to look past it. I mean, how can you not enjoy Robert Englund playing Robert Englund, the actor, hammily portraying Freddy Krueger during a talk show segment, even while Englund also plays the “real” Freddy Krueger invading our reality in the same film? It’s no surprise he’s cited New Nightmare as his personal favorite in the series.
In fact, the only thing that keeps New Nightmare from the tops of the rankings is a few pacing issues, along with the fact that its individual kills really aren’t among the most memorable of the series, favoring a more realistic and less ostentatious style. You can’t blame them—the goal was to make Freddy Krueger scary and commercially viable again, and that’s exactly what this film did. It remains a very fun entry to watch today, while enriching the series mythology.
Director: Chuck Russell
This is by no means a controversial pick, as Dream Warriors is cited by the vast majority of Nightmare fans as the greatest sequel in the series—and they happen to be right. In fact, there are probably fans out there who would even stump for Dream Warriors as superior to the original Nightmare, and in some ways it very well may be, but we still have to give the original a slight edge.
Nevertheless, it’s Dream Warriors that best fits the mold of what a Nightmare on Elm Street movie is classically supposed to look like. Much of its strength comes from its cast of diverse, inherently likable and interesting characters. The kids of Westin Hospital are the perfect slasher movie supporting cast—Kristen, Phillip, Kincaid, Jennifer, Will, Taryn and Joey each have their own foibles and failings, which makes them attractive prey for Freddy, while simultaneously giving them unexpected strength in the form of their individual “dream powers.” And then of course there’s the return of superior final girl Nancy, here wisely turned into more of a supporting character who is nurturing the next generation of Elm Street children. Everything about the casting of Dream Warriors is perfectly conceived.
But then again, you’re really watching these movies for Freddy Krueger, aren’t you? Well, Dream Warriors Freddy is Peak Freddy, or very close to it. This is the film people think of, when they try to cite Krueger’s personality—diabolical, but with a Joker-like streak of macabre humor and an obsession with one-liners. It’s the most perfect synthesis of the dangerous, sadistic side of Freddy with his penchant for toying with his victims like a cat with a mouse. The kills reflect this, whether it’s the great “marionette” bit with Phillip’s exposed tendons, or the instantly iconic “welcome to prime time, bitch!” death of Jennifer. Dream Warriors is everything you’d want in a horror sequel—relentless entertainment that simultaneously respects and expands upon the rules established by the original.
Director: Wes Craven
Dream Warriors really does give the original a run for its money, but in the end, it’s just impossible to overlook just how perfect the first Nightmare really is. Evaluating it now is something of a “chicken and egg” scenario—you can give credit to Dream Warriors for expanding several aspects of what was possible within the confines of a Nightmare movie, but those evolutions can’t match the sheer degree to which the first movie influenced the entire slasher genre when it was released in 1984. Before Nightmare, slashers in the mold of Friday the 13th were proliferating on the market, stories set at summer camps and sorority houses and mundane settings filled with nubile young teens. After Nightmare, those ideas suddenly seemed dated. In fact, you could use the release of the first A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 as a sort of slasher watershed or demarcation point—the end of the “Golden Age” and beginning of the “Silver Age,” as it were.
A lot of the film’s strength is thanks to Nancy herself. She embodies what film critic Carol Glover codified as the “investigative spirit” of the Final Girl, a term that she also coined, and is the force that drives her group of friends to uncover the secret past of Krueger. Her repeated encounters with him leave her physically scarred but constantly gaining new knowledge that she may be able to use to defeat him. Each time they come into contact with each other, the stakes raise—he gets closer to killing her, and she gets closer to learning how to beat him. It all builds toward the final encounter in a way that feels organic and cathartic.
Freddy, too, is undoubtedly at his scariest in the original Nightmare—this is something that no one really disputes. His first big appearance, beckoning at Tina and telling her that his clawed hand “is god,” is certainly one of the most iconic first appearances of a slasher villain, as is Tina’s disturbing death as she’s dragged onto the ceiling and disemboweled. Nor do we ever truly buy the way he’s “defeated” in the end—if anything, it’s a sly parody of the propensity of slasher villains to return like a plague, and the audience’s disbelief is rewarded with the visceral pleasure of Nancy’s mother being pulled to her death through that tiny window. It was clear from the beginning that there were always more nightmares to come, but the original A Nightmare on Elm Street still reigns supreme.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.