In 1984, the late Wes Craven’s low-budget brainchild “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was released into the world, and the horror genre has never been the same since. Making shockwaves in the industry as what would become later known, essentially, as the innovator of supernatural slashers, with a killer concept and some gruesome effects, the overnight sensation would go on to spawn one of the most well-beloved, wildly unique franchises in all of film. Centered around the irresistible premise of a vengeful boogeyman who haunts kids in their dreams, the series quickly became a juggernaut of ‘80s horror, producing some of the decade’s finest efforts…and, unfortunately, some of its worst. From inexcusable atrocities to legitimate cinematic landmarks, the Elm Street movies have certainly had their ups and downs, but there is absolutely no denying their pop cultural impact. “Stranger Things 4” in particular has taken clear inspiration and paid homage to the iconic franchise this season, even boasting an appropriately unnerving cameo from Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), himself. With everyone, old fans and new, in a state of Freddy fever, there seems no better time to take a look back and reminisce upon the highs and lows of the Elm Street canon. So, if you’re brave enough, join us, as we rank all nine films from the worst to the best. But, whatever you do: Don’t. Fall. Asleep.
9. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Marketed as the final (and greatest) Nightmare film, 1991’s “Freddy’s Dead” is not only a blatantly false promise but the most laughable catastrophe to come out of a major horror franchise, this side of “Halloween: Resurrection”. With the series all but in the toilet, and its once terrifying villain headed dangerously into a self-parodying downwards spiral, the good folks over at New Line decided maybe it was time to pull the plug on Freddy, once and for all. Not before squeezing out some more money, of course. Sinking deeper into the hole they had dug themselves with the few previous installments, “Freddy’s Dead” leans full tilt into campy, borderline cartoonish territory. On paper, this isn’t a terrible idea, lampooning the diminished state of the franchise with a sardonic attitude; only, in the process, the movie completely forgets to be entertaining.
To add insult to injury, a brilliantly meta, intriguingly grim script was pitched by none other than Peter Jackson, and well, what we got instead is a lifeless, painfully cheesy “Looney Tunes” episode starring the most obnoxious Freddy Krueger to ever disgrace the screen. Leaving fans with little more to look at than some cheap cameos from Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp, alongside a few admittedly effective visual gags, Rachel Talalay, and crew’s attempts to jump the shark and go out on a bang, resulted in the series fizzling out with a mere whimper. Thank the horror movie heavens this wouldn’t be the last we saw of everyone’s favorite dream demon.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
Nowhere near the colossal misfire of “Freddy’s Dead”, but still a weak and halfhearted entry in its own right, Elm Street’s fifth installment is a muddled product of studio interference and industry greed. Rushed into production following the relatively unexpected success of its predecessor, the film’s lack of focus shows. The final piece of the so-called Dream trilogy, and by far the most watered-down and rudimentary effort of the bunch, “The Dream Child” is an undeniable hodgepodge of mostly misconceived ideas. Worse than that, though, it’s just horribly dull. Lisa Wilcox reprises her role as Alice from the previous film, and is actually even stronger here, while director Stephen Hopkins does his best to salvage what he can through the lens; implementing a gothic set design and some frantic, Sam Raimi-esque camerawork, but it isn’t quite enough.
Putting forth the worst supporting cast of characters in the series, a lackluster script, truly out-of-place stop motion sequences, and a handful of halfway frightening kills (all of which were hacked down to nothing by the MPAA), the movie simply lacks both the chilling atmosphere and whimsical spirit of the rest of the franchise. Historically, Robert Englund’s presence as the razor-glove-wearing boogeyman has been enough to elevate even the lamest aspects of the films, but here, Freddy, quite frankly, isn’t much more than a clownish caricature of his former self, spewing out corny lines and sporting arguably the worst makeup design of his tenure. A nightmare, certainly, but for all the wrong reasons.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
As is the case with most modern remakes, 2010’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” struggles to make a justifiable case for its existence, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely irredeemable along the way. Taking a stab at the Elm Street lore with the grittiest approach to date, this new wave spin on the Nightmare series is a creepy, moody, and ultimately pretty memorable addition to the franchise…when it’s going in its own direction. In fact, the movie’s greatest weakness is that it takes its status as a remake far too seriously; because, when it does make the effort to stray from the original, the frame is filled with some truly impressive moments. Samuel Bayer’s direction, coming from a background in music videos, lends itself to some absolutely eye-popping, brutally macabre nightmare scenes, and Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Freddy, while no Robert Englund, is nothing to be scoffed at.
Bringing a grounded brand of sinister terror to the immortal villain, Haley’s portrayal is criminally underrated, as he bravely relishes in the material, when he isn’t being fed hackneyed retreads of Englund’s old lines. And here, once again, in lies the biggest fault of the movie – it just can’t commit to anything new. Whether it’s poorly-rendered CGI recreations of classic effects, or a promisingly bold twist in the mythology being teased, just to be retracted at the last second, the film sadly doesn’t have the confidence in itself to follow a particular vision. Throw in a handful of sleepwalking lead actors and you have a disappointing mess, that luckily isn’t without its triumphs.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
The black sheep of the Nightmare franchise, as a direct sequel, is absolutely abysmal. But, as a strange anomaly, it’s nothing short of fascinating. Breaking virtually every rule established by Craven in the original film, “Freddy’s Revenge” opts for more of an outlandish possession/werewolf-style movie, and the results are actually very enjoyable; if not all that coherent. Following the premise of Freddy entering the real world through a human avatar named Jesse (Mark Patton), the story does fundamentally contradict what made the first Elm Street unique, but so what? The franchise’s strongest elements have always stemmed from playing upon the notion of nightmares, and damn if this movie doesn’t feel like one hell of a bad dream run amok.
Introducing moments of disturbing body horror and absurd humor, all while retaining an intensely bizarre tone throughout, the daring oddity stands out proudly from the pack, no doubt deriving from its brazen disregard for any type of logic. Though, anyone familiar with the series knows that this film carries its own special legacy, completely independent from the rest. Generating from some not-so-subtle subtext the writer deemed “homoerotic undertones”, the film has a reputation as the gayest horror movie ever made – and it isn’t hard to see why. Controversial at the time, “Freddy’s Revenge” has found new life as a highly celebrated cult classic of LGBTQ horror. No, the sequel may not be a satisfying continuation of the 1984 masterwork that came before, but it is, undoubtedly, a peculiar treat in its own distinct way.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
The first of the series to decrease the scares, fully embrace Freddy’s status as a pop cultural powerhouse, and just have fun with the material (and the only one to get it somewhat right), “Dream Master” is a summer blockbuster curated for the MTV-era, and it’s perfectly happy being nothing more. Coming at a time when the series was quickly starting to gain in popularity, the film makes the conscious choice to delve less into horror, and more into campy silliness, and while this stark shift in the attitude of the franchise would propel into a downhill trend, for sure, this sequel is just too much of a blast to detest. Make no mistake, Freddy is the star of the show, but he is very much still the villain, and not some washed-up joke, as he would quickly become in future installments.
Due to the 1988 writers’ strike, “Dream Master” famously had next to no script to go off of, leaving director Renny Harlin to improvise, piecing together the movie on the fly. And he did a fantastic job, as his inventive nightmare segments and elaborate set-pieces remain some of the most memorable moments in the entire Elm Street catalog. The survivors of the previous film returning adds some nice continuity between the two, making for an amusing enough double-feature, and though Tuesday Knight feels understandably awkward as the replacement for Patricia Arquette, she did write and perform quite the catchy theme song for the movie. Uneven, and definitely far from the franchise’s best work, but an energetic, flamboyant, and entertaining entry, nonetheless.
4. New Nightmare (1994)
With the series dead in the water for three miserable years, Wes Craven returns to Elm Street to deliver the most underappreciated and innately intellectual outing of the franchise. Freeing Freddy from his prolonged state of creative bankruptcy and returning the mythology to its darker roots, Craven’s “New Nightmare” is the well-crafted, cleverly written ANOES flick, fans had forgotten was possible. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, the film finds Krueger making his way into the real world to wreak havoc on the cast and crew of the original Nightmare. A precursor to the self-aware style of horror Craven would popularize just two years later with “Scream”, the film is certainly ahead of its time, working out the kinks through trial and error, and what resolves is largely successful.
Heather Langenkamp has long been known as the beating heart of the series, as proactive final girl Nancy Thompson, and here she gives her most quintessential performance of the lot (playing herself), in a fulfilling farewell to the part that made her a horror icon. Robert Englund adds to the ensemble with an impressively restrained dual role, as both a slightly unsettling depiction of himself, along with the demonic entity assuming the guise of Freddy. As time passes, not all of the effects continue to age well, and the once imaginatively-meta tale, in a post-“Scream” context, isn’t very profound. Yet, there’s still something so endearing about Craven’s modest little mind-bender. Reviving the franchise when all hope seemed lost, “New Nightmare” is an unsung hero of the genre, that deserves its time in the sun.
3. Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Before crossover events and shared universes became mainstream, there was “Freddy vs. Jason”. Stuck in development hell for nearly two decades before finally coming to fruition in the early 2000s, the film is every horror nerd’s fantasy, as a monumental, blood-soaked celebration of two of the biggest franchises in the genre’s history. And that really is the best way to describe it: a true fan film. Yes, it suffers from the same problems that surround the majority of each series – weak story, clunky dialogue, dispensable characters, etc. – but what it doesn’t do is lie. This is a movie that lives up to its very simple promise: two titans of the genre duking it out on the silver screen, with nothing held back. You can poke holes all day, though really, all things considered, the movie has no business being anywhere near as good as it is.
The concept is irrefutable and the motivation for the titular slashers going head-to-head is strong enough, but frankly, it’s a testament to Ronny Yu’s direction and the lasting longevity of these characters that the film comfortably avoids becoming a disaster. Rather, it is a massive accomplishment. Expertly balancing the feel and tone of both the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, “Freddy vs. Jason” succeeds as a love letter to each franchise, while Monica Keena shines as one of the most engaging protagonists of either. Culminating in a violently over-the-top showdown as advertised, this ambitious tribute is every bit the flawed, schlocky, wickedly exciting experience that it needed to be. Dumb, mindless fun, but fun all the same.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Expanding upon the original, and in many ways becoming the archetypal slasher sequel in the process, “Dream Warriors” is everything a good follow-up should be. Based on a loose screenplay from Wes Craven (later punched up by Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell), the film centers around a group of misfit teens inside of a psychiatric ward, as the few remaining survivors of Elm Street. Retaining its predecessors’ sense of dread and danger, with a greater emphasis on the fantastical elements this time around, this picturesque third installment captures, with ease, what every sequel strives for: paying respect to what came before it while pushing the narrative forward in a fresh new direction.
In a sense, the Nightmare movies have always been about listening to the youth in their time of need, and no other entry plays on that adolescent paranoia quite as well as “Dream Warriors”. Offering up, debatably, the only effortlessly lovable cast of Elm Street brats in the series, along with a welcome return from Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, in more of a mentorship role, this is a big, bombastic ‘80s horrorfest, with actual stakes. You care about these characters, and for the first time, you root for Freddy, too. Englund is in top form as the Springwood Slasher, striking the perfect blend between snarky quips and genuine evil, that was never quite replicated since. Operating on a more epic scope, the film packs some of the most unforgettable kills and practical effects of the franchise, as well. An all-around paragon of its kind, and easily the penultimate highlight of the series.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Was there ever any doubt? The Elm Street series has unquestionably left behind some all-time gems, but sometimes you just can’t beat the classics. Long before any thoughts of sequels – before Freddy claimed his spot amongst the most iconic figures in all of the horror, becoming a modern-day Universal monster, there was a simple idea. A simple, singular vision for a horror film that had never been seen before; revolutionizing and revitalizing the genre all at once. Adding a dose of the supernatural into the tired slasher model, Wes Craven would shake up the game, with an impenetrable, psychologically-disturbing landmark of horror. Introducing moviegoers to a tattered-sweater-wearing maniac and a twisted concept for the ages, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” would do to sleeping what “Jaws” did for swimming, terrifying a whole new generation to its core.
It’s the kind of movie magic money can’t buy. From the inspired writing and makeshift special effects to the eerie nursery rhyme and Charles Bernstein’s indelible score, everything comes together to create cinematic lightning in a bottle. Bolstered by two of the genre’s most influential performances in Langenkamp’s Nancy and Englund’s Krueger, the movie doesn’t really have a weakness. Displaying quotable dialogue, some of the most spine-chilling imagery ever put to film, and a powerful message of overcoming your fears, it’s honestly no wonder this remarkable piece of horror history has been able to withstand the test of time as well as it has. A must-see masterpiece, worthy of its acclaim.