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Ranking the Nightmare on Elm Street Films from Best to Worst

New Line Cinema is known as “The House That Freddy Built”, and rightfully so. The A Nightmare on Elm Street films were slow but steady in permeating America’s wider pop-culture, making child-murderer and punster Freddy Krueger into a household name. Freddy is a horror legend, and one of the “Big 3” of the slasher genre along with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. While having fewer films than those two, Freddy arguably has the best track record for being entertaining, if not actually being imaginative and scary. What follows is a look at the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, going from horror classics to diminishing returns.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors

Dream Warriors beats out the original film largely because it’s one of the few to have Freddy hit that sweet spot between horror and ham without diminishing either. The cannon fodder is probably the most likable cast in horror movie history, and that adds to the terror and the sadness when any of them get offed by Freddy.

Speaking of, Freddy isn’t as on his A-game with the nightmare settings when he goes to work on his victims, but his subtle manipulations of the environment to get at them has never been better. The paranoia invoked by this creative decision masterfully displays the dream logic of the scenes in which Krueger appears, and makes them that much more terrifyingly plausible as a result. Freddy takes out his victims methodically and with a twinge of dark humor that makes their deaths that much more disturbing, instead of the punchline they would later become.

We also get the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, now older, wiser, and more prepared to deal with Freddy once she unintentionally finds herself back in his sights with the new teens. The film has been compared to Jason and the Argonauts, but I prefer Freddy Vs. X-Men. Dream Warriors succeeds as both horror and adventure, and it’s arguably the best performance Robert Englund gave as Krueger.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdb_HSvf2Zk

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street entirely earns its place among horror classics. Tense, moody, and filled atmospheric dread, this film showed that a knife-wielding behemoth in a mask wasn’t the only way to scare audiences in the mid 1980s. Heather Langenkamp as girl-next-door Nancy Thompson leads the way as she tries to unravel the mystery behind the burned man trying to kill her in her dreams—and succeeding at it with her friends.

The theme of “sins of the father” permeates the story, invoking fears of both young and old. Adults fear it because it reeks of karma for consequences long thought avoided, come to make them suffer more as witnesses than they ever could as victims. Young people were afraid because they were caught in the crossfire of it all, with no seeming recourse and forced to face the inevitability of a fate where pain would not end with death.

Clothes made the man in this series, as Freddy’s glove, striped sweater, and not yet douchified-fedora cemented him as an archetype in horror. If Michael Myers was the boogyman outside your window, Freddy was the one in your nightmares. Wes Craven originally envisioned the film having a definitively happy ending in which everyone lived. Bob Shaye, however, had a more ambiguous ending in mind that would allow for more sequels. Your mileage may vary, but personally, I think Dream Warriors was worth it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSLGPdpd2d0

Freddy Vs. Jason

Sad, but true– Freddy Vs. Jason was Freddy’s movie. It’s pretty understandable if other Jason fans don’t really care for it, since Mr. Voorhees did in fact seem more like a guest star than a co-star. I say this as a fan of both, wishing for a sequel that would be more about Jason and Crystal Lake.

As it stands, however, both Freddy and Jason at least had important parts to play in the mythology of the story’s premise, and it’s plausible enough for them to come to blows at the end of it. It’s far from ideal, but one of the problems with the pre-production of the movie was that they had a lot of ideas, and none of them worked on screen. It wasn’t a 10 year wait for nothing, after all. With Freddy Vs. Jason, the foundation could have been laid for a more balanced sequel that favored Jason, but like most slasher villains, it was thought to be better with a reboot. As a last hurrah for Freddy and Jason as we knew them, you could do a lot worse.

That said, the performances are serviceable, even getting a touch of character development for some of the cannon fodder here and there. Englund is flawless as ever as Freddy, and Ken Kirzinger delivers as a believable Jason. Like I said, you could do worse for both—They have.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TV8za5nWxwo

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

A lot of people blame Scream for heralding the obnoxiously-meta slasher flick, but in all honesty, it started here. What was once considered bold for its time hasn’t aged very well for me, as the flaws in these works are so well known that attempts to mock them come across as pandering at this point. Making Freddy Krueger a wink/nudge threat wasn’t as pronounced as it would be in Scream, and thus ends up being more tolerable.

Heather Langenkamp returns both as Nancy and as Herself, as she struggles to keep her fictional enemy from becoming her real-life murderer. Professional creepy kid Miko Hughes plays her fake-movie-only son Dylan, wigging out and generally trying to win all the Darwin Awards until Freddy is defeated. Smug and self-referential as it is, I’m personally won over by its mid-90s charm and the performances of the characters.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuu_-PIYuvI

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Here’s where we get about as 1988 as possible. The Dream Master was referred to as the MTV Elm Street Movie, and it shows. Bright, flashy, and saturated with late ‘80s pop-culture aesthetic, Dream Master is either an eyesore or a sight to behold. The dream sequences are at their most surreal and disturbing, with cannon fodder that manages to evoke terror and sympathy for Alice, who spends some time standing by helplessly as she tries to get past the how-do-I-shoot-web part of learning her dream powers.

Did I mention the cast of Dream Warriors was slaughtered unceremoniously in the first act? Fifteen minutes and it’s on to Jock Love Interest, Lady Urkel, Tori (the friend nobody cared about from Saved By the Bell), and not-Ralph Macchio. But yeah, this one is arguably Elm Street at it’s most visually interesting without getting into the utter cartoonishness that would come later.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K81Um6WOwh0

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The DreamChild

Feeling a need to be a little “deeper” on top of the urge to pump out a sequel due to the success of The Dream Master, The Dream Child was rushed into production, coming out in just a year after in 1989. Work on this one was clearly lacking in the care that was put into the others. The story , while trying to take Freddy back to that darker territory he came from, with mixed results.

The story is solid enough, though it contradicts some details from previous films in the series to make it work. The make up work for Freddy is at its worse, making it look more like his victims are being stalked by a cheese pizza in human form than a demonic burn victim. The cannon fodder is likeable enough, but there are too few of them– if you’re here for the crazy dream sequences, they’re few and far between compared to the last sequel.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

If the first Nightmare film is one end of the spectrum for the tone of the Elm Street series, then Freddy’s Dead is clearly the other. Twin Peaks was big during the production of this film, and was used as inspiration for the direction to take. The surrealism and comedy are at their peak as a result of that and exaggerating the humorous aspects of Freddy’s character, but for many they took the latter past the point of tolerability.

Chock-full of dated celebrity cameos, deaths that would not look out of place in a Robot Chicken sketch, and a gratuitous 3D sequence that barely worked, Freddy’s Dead is far from scary, but if you always looked to Freddy for a laugh, this is the one you go to.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

Let’s get this out of the way right now: yes, Freddy’s Revenge is the gayest horror film ever made.

Ever.

But how does it stack up as an Elm Street film? Well, this one got ignored throughout the rest of the series for a reason. It is blatantly obvious that there was no plan for Freddy with this one, at one point even another actor was put in the role. They were so terrible that they had no choice but to come back to Robert Englund, who thankfully resumed the role for the next couple of decades. This is, however, probably the movie’s only saving grace, along with the make-up and effects work.

Freddy’s motivation to possess the body of our protagonist Jesse so he can murder people is basically subtext for a “coming out” story. On its own merits, it would be contrary to the rest of the series, where possession is only used as a way of taking out threats to Freddy’s dreamtime activities. The cannon fodder is as bland as they come, although they also work as a time-capsule for the mid 1980s (LiMahl!)

Worth watching as MST3K material and little else, I’d honestly suggest you watch the sequence about it in the Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again instead.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

It could have been good. It really could have. But they pulled their punches.

With a Friday the 13th reboot announced, it was only natural to expect one for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Produced simultaneously and released about a year apart, the reboot is practically a remake instead. The plot is virtually identical to that of the first film, except the Johnny Depp equivalent isn’t completely worthless and manages to help our new Nancy when the showdown with Freddy rolls around.

Basically rehashing the same kind of story was the same mistake the Friday the 13th reboot made, but they at least tried to add in some kind of twist, badly as it was done. The shades of one is still there in the Nightmare reboot, and it could have made all the difference. The subtext for Freddy has always been that he was a child molester on top of being a child murderer, but that part was cut from the movies because Wes Craven didn’t want to seem like he was exploiting a then-controversial news story about child abuse that was going on at the time.

The reboot chooses to make that subtext the text, and while that definitely makes Freddy that much more horrifying and disgusting, they could have taken it a lot further and into much darker territory if they had chosen to make him innocent, as parts of the film imply. The idea that Freddy is innocent is  immediately rejected by a lot of people because they feel that would make him less scary by being sympathetic.

Not so.

Freddy would, in fact, be worse for how he goes about getting his revenge. If he was innocent and basically the victim of a vigilante execution, it would mean that he chose to become the monster he is. When given power, his reign of terror is explicitly designed to make innocent people suffer in all the ways he was accused of, and more besides. The most terrifying thing about it all would be that it never had to happen in the first place if due process had been allowed to take place.

Sensing that this take wouldn’t go over well because it didn’t line up with the original, the end result is the movie we got: predictable, boring, and yet another reboot of a stillborn franchise that we’ll have to wait who-knows-how-long before we get another entry in the series…if any. If Freddy is dead, then this is the movie that killed him.

****

Editor’s Note: also check out the previous installments in this year’s Halloween coverage at PJ Lifestyle: 

Susan L.M. Goldberg: 8 Reasons Why Jews & Christians Should Re-Think Celebrating Halloween

Ash Freeman: Ranking The Friday The 13th Films From Best to Worst

Robert Wargas: Would You Survive a Horror Movie?

Pierre Comtois: The 10 Scariest Movie Monsters of All Time

Jeremy Swindle: The 10 Worst Horror Films on Netflix: Drinking Game Edition