In 1984 horror auteur Wes Craven launched one of the most iconic horror franchises with A Nightmare on Elm Street. With excessive amounts of blood and an unconventional killer, the first Nightmare became an icon of the slasher sub-genre with Freddy Kruger being held up as one of the most celebrated villains of the style. The franchise has lasted almost 30 years and given the state of Hollywood, will continue in some form eventually. Not all of the films are good; I would be hesitant to label any of them as truly great. But unlike the Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw, and Child’s Play franchises, Nightmare has a level of consistency to its films that makes marathoning an enjoyable experience (for the most part).
Below are the nine installments of this franchise from worst to best. Only two of them would I recommend avoiding completely because the rest are examples of the enjoyable side of slasher franchise films.
Avoid at all Costs
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) dir. Samuel Bayer
Oh where to start with this. First, Jackie Earle Hayley is not nearly as terrifying as Robert Englund and the way they deform his face make him look hyper-serious rather than comically menacing. Second, the cinematography and editing are atrocious, making the film a chore to watch rather than a suspenseful thrill ride. And finally, the key to the effectiveness of the horror in the first five films is totally gone. A character who went into a dream in the original timeline would quickly drift to sleep and then jerk awake in the same context where they fell asleep, mimicking the visceral effect of a dream state. Then slowly the dream would become more fantastical and terrifying. Here the dream sequences automatically transfer the victims to a nightmare state, normalizing the horror so you aren’t scared when Freddy does his thing. The only positive to this film is that Rooney Mara gives a good performance in the classic role of Nancy. Everything else suffers from being over-serious. Because the strength of this series is the comedy makes the horror all the more menacing, so having a hyper serious instalment just doesn’t work.
8. Freddy vs. Jason (2003) dir. Ronny Yu
The biggest problem of this film is that it totally wastes its premise. The whole idea of the film is that Freddy has been eradicated from the population by locking up those who’ve encountered him and erasing him from the town history. Then when Freddy resurrects Jason to strike fear into the town’s people, the kids start trying to figure out who this Freddy is, inadvertently causing him to become stronger. It’s a real shame because that premise is really interesting and what they end up doing is not. It’s an action film with a few bad jump scares and a lot of bad early 2000s CGI and atmosphere.
Fun but Derivative
7. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) dir. Rachel Talalay
This film is a total mess. It is classified as a horror-comedy on Wikipedia and its those comedic elements that mess with the quality of the film. The thing is, they kind of work in a really campy way but then the film takes a totally dark and disturbing turn going into Freddy’s life and memories. The comedy, rather than setting up an atmosphere for effective horror, makes the atmosphere incompatible with the jarring and disturbing story elements in the second half. It also just doesn’t fit the established canon of the series which bothers the purist in me, but really that’s beside the point. Weirdly, it is a fitting end to the original series chronology even if it in no way can be classified as a good film.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) dir. Renny Harlin
Perhaps it’s unfair to put this so low because it is a wholly entertaining film; however it really is just an extension of the far superior third instalment. The Dream Master follows the death of those from the third instalment and the establishment of a new protagonist. She kicks ass, really. Alice is the best protagonist the series had if you ask me, but her performance is better in the fifth film which makes this a retroactive let down.
Fun, Scary, Thought Provoking
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) dir. Jack Sholder
If you are marathoning the original continuity, you can skip this film. It doesn’t fit into the story at all and watching 1, 3, 4, and 5 is an enjoyable horror experience that creates one complete story. However, 2 is definitely one of the more interesting installments to the franchise. Mark Patton plays a new protagonist for the series: Jesse Walsh. He is coded as bisexual, and while that makes me cringe a little because the film can be read as him being crazy and only saved because of his straight girlfriend, there is another reading that is really interesting and subversive. Jesse being coded as bi and facing oppression and repression because of this, makes him a target for Freddie (who feeds on fear after all). The film places the onus of harm and damage on society rather than on the individual, and that is a really subversive idea for a slasher film.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) dir. Stephen Hopkins
Where Freddy’s Dead delved into Kruger’s past in a really disturbing way, The Dream Child revitalizes the premise of the series through its exploration of the Kruger character. Kruger gets into the world through dreams, so what happens when his typical target is awake but he still gets out? He’s using Alice’s baby of course! Sure it’s a little contrived, but in the wider context of the series and Kruger’s methods, it makes some demented sense. Then they re-visit Freddy’s birth from the third film drawing a parallel between Alice’s dream child and Amanda Kruger’s nightmare child. The film is visually interesting and offers a revitalization that was needed but also fit the overarching story.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Wes Craven
The original and it only places 3rd? Yes and there are a number of reasons why. Firstly the positive: look at the difference between Tina’s death in this film and her replacement’s death in the 2010 remake; visually similar but radically different in tone.
The remake is almost boring in its approach, using edits to soften the radical effect of the death and seriously limiting the amount of blood in the scene. The first though takes its cues from the Exorcist and is shocking because it doesn’t let us look away. The blood is jarring and it makes that scene properly horrifying. These kinds of comparisons do very well for the original film, however it fall short of two of its successors for two reasons: the soundtrack and the acting. The soundtrack is very representative of an 80s synth score and it removes me from the film in a big way. But more importantly, the final girl Nancy is just a terribly actress. Everything she does feels forced and contrived in this film, where in her two later appearances she gives reasonably good performances. The original Nightmare is a good time, just not the best time this series has to offer.
2. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) dir. Wes Craven
Apparently this is the most divisive film of this franchise and that mystifies me. This is an obvious progenitor to Craven’s other slasher franchise Scream. In this world, Wes Craven, Robert Englund, and Heather Langenkamp (among others) are real and so is this film franchise. Craven takes the idea of the demonic Kruger from being a fictional character to being a transformed devil that exists in and is trapped by his stories. And when the stories stop being told, he can cross into the real world. It’s a fascinating premise that offers a reboot in a really artistic fashion. Most importantly though, this film is the scariest of the franchise, with real suspense built through inventive cinematography, music, and writing.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) dir. Chuck Russell
This film features the best/most memorable line in the entire series.
It also connects to the first film in a way that logically expands the mythology and spices up the action visually. Back from the first film, Nancy is older and medicates herself to keep her from dreaming. She goes to work at the mental hospital which now houses the last of the kids from Freddy’s original reign on Elm Street. She teaches these kids how to use their dreams to fight Freddy (hence the title) and through doing so, gives a cartoonish and funny spin on the action of the first two films. The pacing is easily at its best in this film for it is both an easy and enjoyable watch filled with laughs, suspense, and some great scares.