Freddy Krueger hasn’t always been a one-liner spewing parody figure in horror cinema. Once upon a time, when Wes Craven constructed this char-grilled pedophile who seeks vengeance on the children of those responsible for his death, A Nightmare on Elm Street was an honest-to-goodness nightmare come to life.
Somewhere along the way, however, as New Line Cinema grew more confident with The Kreuge’s and the franchise expanded further and further, they decided to transform him into a standup comedian with creative kills superseding genuine scares. That’s not all bad, not all the time. Having Freddy go broad works from time to time, but there must be a balance. Regardless of the diminishing returns, Freddy and his franchise made it all the way through six original films, one crafty reimagining from Craven himself, and even a straight reboot. It’s one of the most recognizable, powerful horror franchise of all time, despite jumping too many sharks to count along the way.
Without further ado, let’s rank the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise from bottom to top; and yes, even that 2010 remake.
8) A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) – Speaking of that 2010 remake.. Of all the confounding, pointless remakes to come along in Hollywood these days, New Line’s decision to trot out a new take on Craven’s original film is one of the more lifeless, useless, pointless efforts of them all. The cast is impressive, with Rooney Mara taking over Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy role and Jackie Earle Haley as Krueger. But the lackluster screenplay, the weird decision to make Krueger somewhat of a sympathetic character (there was no evidence to suggest he was actually a child rapist… seriously), and the dreary cinematography make this reboot an unwatchable disaster. At least the bad sequels in the original franchise weren’t this boring.
7) A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) – The premise of The Dream Child is promising, with Krueger’s intention to be reborn via the unborn child of Alice (Lisa Wilcox), a survivor of the previous film. But the execution is a watered-down mess, and the dream sequences bathed in a weird and foggy blue light. There’s also the introduction of Amanda Krueger, a nun locked away in an insane asylum, who (surprise!) winds up being Freddy’s mother. What began as a solid idea gets lost in the weeds of Krueger’s birth and lifeless storytelling.
6) A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) – The most notable thing about this fourth entry in the franchise is the fact that action hack-master Renny Harlin directed it. As for the film itself, well, this is where Freddy Krueger became a comedian more than any sort of actual threat. Horror elements take a backseat as Harlin understandably leans into the creative kills (the roach motel one is pretty good) and action scenes. The plot is basically nothing more than a reason to get this fourth film up and running after Dream Warriors seemingly closed the door on Freddy, and the new slate of teen victims are bargain-basement performers with no discernible character traits.
5) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) – For all intents and purposes, this Final Nightmare was technically the last entry into the original franchise. Rachel Talalay’s film attempts to ape the successful formula of Dream Warriors with the story taking place in a kid’s shelter colored with an array of troubled youths. And it also tried to integrate new tech in 1991, from the Nintendo Power Glove (responsible for a pretty cool Breckin Meyer kill), to having the finale shot in 3D. But it also had some incredibly ridiculous cornball jokes from Freddy and the introduction of his previously unmentioned daughter, Maggie (Lisa Zane), whom he squares off with in the muddled climax.
4) A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) – This much maligned second entry was so poorly received at the time, it was almost enough to derail the entire series. But this allegory for teenage homosexual fear is unfairly categorized if you ask me. I wrote at length last year about why this film works, both on a subtextual level and as a straight horror. It’s weird and appropriately uncomfortable at times, and Freddy’s makeup is an improvement on the original film because it had a more realistic, burned look. Bringing Freddy into the real world was at least an attempt to differentiate from the original, and should be applauded given what the franchise would turn into a few years later.
3) Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) – Despite Freddy’s Dead being the symbolic end of the franchise, New Line and Wes Craven returned for a meta-take on the Elm Street films, and brought Heather Langenkamp back into the fold. This time, however, she was playing herself as the star of the original film, and Robert England showed up as himself, a celebrity after playing the killer. Only Freddy Krueger is still real in this alt-world, and the metatextual elements converge in the end in some truly frightening scenes. It’s a clever twist on the story, a much better idea than simply trotting out another series of teens getting killed in an aimless story, and a precursor to Craven’s Scream, another deconstructionist take on horror. Krueger’s makeup also looks devilishly cool when he shows up in the real world.
2) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Wes Craven’s original is a great film, but it’s not the only great entry. It deserves credit for being the first, and most genuinely frightening of the Elm Street‘s. It has some iconic imagery, from the body bag scene in the classroom hallway, to Tina’s ceiling murder early on. But it also doesn’t have its sea legs. This is still Craven and his team figuring things out about Freddy Krueger and his potential. Krueger is almost always hidden in darkness, and at times the story plods through details. Nevertheless, it’s still a horror classic, and it birthed one of the most iconic characters in the genre.
1) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) – After the critical and box-office misfire that was Freddy’s Revenge, New Line decided to bring Wes Craven back for story duties. And he crafted a masterful storyline, directed with some gusto by Chuck Russell. This is the sweet spot of Freddy the comedian and Freddy the maniac; there are some witticisms but it’s countered by some horrifying, creative kills. That marionette murder is one of the best of the franchise. Dream Warriors has an eclectic cast of teenage misfits occupying a mental hospital, with Patricia Arquette in one of her earliest roles, and Heather Langenkamp returning as a counselor. This has energy and panache and is easily the most entertaining of the bunch.