Halloween Horror: Ranking the Nightmare on Elm Street Series
No horror franchise is perfect, but the Nightmare on Elm Street series at least has a decent track record. About half of the films are good, while another third are simply mediocre and only a couple are outright awful. Furthermore, few other franchises better encapsulate the horror ethos of the 1980s, when slashers were king, teenagers were the narrative focus, and the villain’s death was never conclusive. It’s also proven to be a durable franchise, with nine entries over 26 years and one of the most iconic villains in all of horror cinema.
For Halloween Horror this year, I’ve ranked the nine films in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, including the crossover film with the Friday the 13th franchise (Freddy vs. Jason) and the 2010 remake, in an attempt to get at what makes this often scary, usually campy, and frequently bizarre horror series worth watching.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Wes Craven
The first is still the best. Wes Craven, one of the titans of American horror cinema, created his most iconic work with this suburban slasher picture about a child murderer named Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) who gets revenge on the townspeople who killed him by murdering their children in their sleep. Like with the best horror movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street succeeds through the elemental power of its conceit, which is that if you die in your dream, you die in real life. It weaponizes the vulnerability of sleep and childhood fears of the night and nightmares to create a potent horror effect. It also brings some levity to an often-humourless genre, with Englund’s Freddy Krueger being the rare horror villain to have a definable personality and a dark sense of humour. This combination of brilliant horror concept and witty humour has influenced countless films in a variety of genres, including the likes of Child’s Play and even The Matrix.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is not seamless like the best works of horror, but it is genuinely scary and visually-inventive. Most importantly, it has a dreamlike texture that transcends the mechanical jump scares of many horror films; its surreal imagery works its way into your subconscious and lingers long after the credits roll, proving that its horror has a genuine power that’s hard to replicate.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) dir. Chuck Russell
One of three Nightmare on Elm Street films with story input from Wes Craven, Dream Warriors is the true sequel to the first film, with that film’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), now working as a therapist at a children’s mental hospital. While Nancy and her fellow teens sought to fight back against Freddy only in the final moments of the first film, Dream Warriors makes this dreamscape battle the main focus, with Nancy equipping her group of teenage patients (including a young Patricia Arquette) to do battle with Freddy in their dreams.
At its best, the Nightmare on Elm Street series thrives on hallucinatory dream imagery and Dream Warriors has a lot of visual invention in key moments. In one scene, Freddy’s blade fingers becoming hypodermic needles that inject poison into a character and at another moment, Freddy transforms into a giant snake and tries to eat a character. In a lot of ways, the film marks the series’s transition to the fantasy genre, but it’s still capable of scaring and has a genuinely-intriguing concept, one that’s a logical extension of the rules introduced in the first film. Furthermore, Freddy is still scary in it and had not yet become a goofy dream denom fond of terrible puns.
3. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) dir. Wes Craven
In many respects New Nightmare is a dry run for Scream, a meta-horror film about the legacy of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, with the character of Freddy Krueger leaving the screen to terrorize Heather Langenkamp and the other actors and filmmakers behind the franchise. This lets Wes Craven knowingly play with horror conventions, point out absurdities in horror filmmaking, and muse about the moral value of horror filmmaking itself. At points, New Nightmare can get a little too cute, especially when it comes to Wes Craven as the artist and his role in the film, where Craven’s script for a new Nightmare on Elm Street film is so powerful, it brings Freddy to metaphysical life, but it’s mostly a scary and substantial evaluation of the series’ legacy. It also lets Craven explore one of his favourite themes, which is a horror filmmaker’s moral responsibility for the impact of their work. Scream would do it better, but New Nightmare is clever and adds some much-needed terror back into a series that had mostly forgotten how to scare viewers.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) dir. Renny Harlin
The Dream Master finds the franchise on the precipice of pure camp, though not yet entirely giving in to groan-worthy one-liners and incoherent story rules (see the final entry on this list), but not entirely conjuring the same genuinely-terrifying world of the first film. Picking up where Dream Warriors left off, The Dream Master finds Freddy dispatching the last of the Elm Street children and coming up against a whole new set of dream warriors. The plot over complicates the already-questionable storyworld rules of Dream Warriors, but there’s still visual imagination here as well as a moderately-engrossing plot. The scene in the movie theatre, where Alice (Lisa Wilcox) gets sucked into the movie screen, is one of the best scenes in the entire series and shows the franchise still capable of haunting, dreamlike imagery. Of course, The Dream Master also gives us Freddy’s infamous “wet dream” one-liner, so it’s really a mixed bag and a perfect encapsulation of the series’s competing impulses.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) dir. Jack Sholder
Freddy’s Revenge is the one where Freddy Krueger is entirely a projection of one boy’s fear of coming out of the closet. That is, according to the film’s overly-obvious subtext. Ostensibly, it’s about a teenager moving into the Elm Street house with his family and Freddy Krueger using the boy as a proxy to dispatch his classmates. However, the film’s glaring subtext is that the boy’s secretly gay, but scared of coming out of the closet and so he directs all of his hostility towards the objects of his homosexual affection, thus killing his own gay impulses. Freddy becomes merely a projection of his own conflicted sexuality. The many scenes of naked locker room chats and sexual tension between gym coaches and athletes only adds to a subtext so overwhelming it nearly becomes explicit. Beyond this subtext, Freddy’s Dead isn’t that interesting. It’s a standard slasher with some moderate scares and a spooky atmosphere, but nowhere near the originality of the first film or Dream Warriors.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) dir. Samuel Bayer
This remake doesn’t have even half the charm of the original film, removing most of the humour and visual inventiveness that’s the hallmark of Craven’s classic. But it does have one thing going for it, which is its take on Freddy Krueger. While the film mostly whittles down the concept of the original into a grim, sleekly-shot mood piece with Twilight-level brooding from the lead characters (including a pre-fame Rooney Mara), Samuel Bayer’s remake does lean into the obvious subtext of Freddy Krueger, which is that he’s a pedophile in addition to being a child murderer. As Freddy, Jackie Earle Haley plays like a nightmare version of his character from Little Children in order to make Freddy a genuinely-gruesome villain again instead of a sneering, mocking jokester. This grim, sickening take on Freddy makes him even more repulsive, but it’s also the only raison d’être of this remake, which otherwise never comes close to recapturing the visual magic or scares of the original.
7. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) dir. Rachel Talalay
A bizarre entry that adds a backstory for Freddy and tries to definitively kill him off and end the franchise (which didn’t really work). The presence of Yaphet Kotto as an older mentor and the inexplicable setting of 1999, complete with small nods to then-futuristic technology and dystopian living conditions, give the film some strange texture, although for the most part, this is simply a low-budget rehash of what’s come before. The flashbacks to Freddy’s past and the supposedly-revelatory addition of Freddy’s daughter to the franchise is meant to give the film some extra pathos and complexity, but it’s mostly one last gasp of the convoluted storytelling that overwhelmed the franchise after Dream Warriors.
8. Freddy vs. Jason (2003) dir. Ronny Yu
One thing you can say for the Nightmare on Elm Street series is that it was never simply an excuse for titillation, unlike the Friday the 13th series. So leave it to the crossover film with Friday the 13th to bring leering camerawork and gratuitous nudity and swearing to the franchise. The actual central event of Freddy vs. Jason, which has Freddy going toe-to-toe with the silent, hockey-mask-wearing Jason Voorhees, is fun in a cheesy, B-movie way, but the rest of the film is atrocious, with annoying young adult protagonists constantly bickering about ways to dispatch Freddy and director Ronny Yu and company taking every opportunity to get the film’s actresses out of their clothes. Aside from Robert Englund’s gleeful reprisal of his work as Freddy, Freddy vs. Jason consists only of the bad elements of the Friday the 13th franchise with none of the good elements of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) dir. Stephen Hopkins
The Dream Child is everything that’s bad about the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise: convoluted storytelling, bad puns, cheesy special effects, a lack of scares, and irksome pop culture references. Supposedly picking up where The Dream Master left off, The Dream Child has Freddy trying to possess the body of Alice’s unborn child. Or something like that. The plot for this sequel, which has characters careening through dreams and inhabiting settings that look more like MTV music video sets than nightmares, is incomprehensible. I couldn’t tell you the main strokes of the story even if I tried. All I know is that there is nothing remotely scary in this film and not a single ounce of visual wit or clever humour. It couldn’t be further away from the first film in terms of quality if it tried.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, USA)
Written and directed by Wes Craven; starring John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Heather Langenkamp, Amanda Wyss, Nick Corri, Johnny Depp, and Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, USA)
Directed by Jack Sholder; written by Davis Chaskin; starring Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Clu Gulager, Hope Lange, and Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, USA)
Directed by Chuck Russell; written by Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner and Chuck Russell & Frank Darabont, based on a story by Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner; starring Heather Langenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Laurence Fishburne, Priscilla Pointer, Craig Wasson, and Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, USA)
Directed by Renny Harlin; written by Brian Helgeland and Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat, based on a story by William Kotzwinkle and Brian Helgeland; starring Lisa Wilcox, Danny Hassel, Tuesday Knight, Ken Sagoes, Rodney Eastman, and Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, USA)
Directed by Stephen Hopkins; written by Leslie Bohem, based on a story by John Skipp & Craig Spector and Leslie Bohem; starring Lisa Wilcox, Kelly Jo Minter, Erika Anderson, Danny Hassel, and Robert Englund.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, USA)
Directed by Rachel Talalay; written by Michael DeLuca; starring Lisa Zane, Shon Greenblatt, Lezlie Deane, Yaphet Kotto, and Robert Englund.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994, USA)
Written and directed by Wes Craven; starring Heather Langenkamp, Miko Hughes, John Saxon, and Robert Englund.
Freddy vs. Jason (2003, USA)
Directed by Ronny Yu; written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift; starring Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Lochlyn Munro, Ken Kirzinger, and Robert Englund.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, USA)
Directed by Samuel Bayer; written by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Wesley Strick; starring Jackie Earle Haley, Rooney Mara, Kyle Gallner, Katie Cassidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz.