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Ranking the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" Movies

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Matt Bird writes all sorts of nonsense, but he dedicates a large chunk of his time to writing game walkthroughs.

Copyright 1988 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1988 by New Line Cinema.

The worst nightmare of every teenager this side of Springwood, Ohio, Freddy Krueger has been haunting the dreams of moviegoers for decades. Whether he's the taunting-yet-evasive shadow of the first movie or the cornball smart-aleck of the later instalments, Freddy has always managed to pair gruesome dreamtime murders with a certain tongue-in-cheek flair that elevates his horror films just a smidge above that of most of his contemporaries. The quality wasn't always there in the later films, but Robert Englund's wisecracking serial killer is fun to watch in virtually every instalment.

But which films were the best and which can you safely skip? It's time to have a look through the films of A Nightmare on Elm Street and find out.

Copyright 1991 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1991 by New Line Cinema.

9. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare

Before we can explore the good movies, we have to look at the bad ones, and this is a bad one. Not even bothering to use the usual A Nightmare on Elm Street title, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare will swiftly have you begging for Freddy to end it already. The moment you hear "bombs away" cartoon sound effects as a pin drops, you know this one will be a stinker.

Attempting to recreate some of the greatness of the older films, The Final Nightmare returns to 1428 Elm Street and pits a cast of troubled youths and a pair of psychologists against Freddy. Freddy starts his usual round of killing, but there's a twist: Someone in the cast is related to him. A number of bloody confrontations lead to Freddy being pulled into the real world, and once it's revealed why Freddy always comes back... he's killed. With a pipe bomb. No, really. Sorry for the spoiler, but it's too stupid a death not to mention.

Freddy gets revived whenever a movie studio wants more money, so the possibility that this is actually The Final Nightmare shouldn't cross your mind. More insulting is the fact that Freddy's 'final' movie seems so cheaply made. The deaths are nowhere near as inventive this time around, and there's little appreciable difference between Freddy's dreamscapes and the real world. (Aside from the video game sequence, but, uh... well, that's awful for different reasons.) Freddy himself barely makes an effort to hide in the shadows, leading to a complete lack of suspense, and the combination of his ghoulish capering and some cartoonish script choices give The Final Nightmare a Looney Toons feel that's tough to shake.

Unless you are really, really invested in the Freddy Krueger character, you should consider skipping this film. Aside from some intriguing explorations into his past, The Final Nightmare makes Freddy worse.

Copyright 1989 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1989 by New Line Cinema.

8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

If The Dream Child can be said to have one major problem, it's tone. Is it a serious, kinda boring examination of the trials of motherhood? Or is it a goofy comic book where your protagonists can turn into gun-wielding vigilantes at will? The mood shifts are jarring, and that fact alone makes The Dream Child an uneven experience.

The Dream Child brings back Alice from The Dream Master, and Lisa Wilcox continues to deliver a believable, nuanced performance. Alice is plagued by bad dreams, and it's no surprise to anyone when Freddy comes crawling back from the depths of Hell to plague her once again. Alice, now pregnant, has to protect her unborn child from Freddy. Except for the child this is standard fare for Elm Street, and while the film plays with the lore of the dreamscape in interesting ways, it all still boils down to Freddy murdering teens ironically until someone stops him.

It's Freddy himself who puts this film in the lower tiers. Robert Englund's acting is still great, but the script forces him to spout endless one-liners while he's doing his thing. Surely Freddy does not need to say "Need for speed!" or "Pedal to the metal!" or "Better buckle up!" while he cackles. Yet he says all of those things, and more, and it's annoying. From this point on, he is a cartoon character.

Is The Dream Child unwatchable? No. It's shot well, the sets are some of the best in the series, (most) of the kills are fun and creative, and the conclusion is utter lunacy. There's great use of the dreamscapes this time around, especially in the last half hour. It all comes back to tone, though, and the jumps from harrowing drama to dark comedy are tough to stomach.

Copyright 2003 by New Line Cinemia.

Copyright 2003 by New Line Cinemia.

7. Freddy vs. Jason

The inevitable result of decades of popularity for two powerhouse horror franchises, Freddy vs. Jason is predictable, not scary, and, at times, just a teensy weensy bit boring. It's still a lot of fun, though, and if you've ever watched either Freddy or Jason in action, you should probably see this film too.

Jason is a stick-in-the-mud and likes to stay near Crystal Lake, so Freddy winds up being the mastermind of this film. Losing power rapidly as he's forgotten by the people of Springwood, Freddy manipulates Jason into invading the town and killing teens. It's a bid to bring Freddy back into the limelight, which... doesn't fully make sense, but it seems to work anyway... at least until Jason starts to steal Freddy's kills. Freddy's irritation leads to a drawn-out, no-holds-barred battle between the two, ending on Jason's turf at Crystal Lake. A gaggle of breathless teens get caught in the crossfire, and, uh, you don't need to know much about them. They get traumatized and most of them die. Case closed.

Viewers want to watch Freddy and Jason interact, so it's inevitable that there isn't a whole lot of suspense in Freddy vs. Jason. They're just on-screen too much in the third act for any of the scares to work. The horror elements are replaced by a gory, fast-paced action flick as Freddy and Jason whale on each other, in and out of Freddy's dreamscapes. It feels like a lower-budget superhero movie with no superhero, aside, perhaps, from the teens, and they're all so thinly-drawn that you won't care much when they die. There is kind of a winner at the end, though it's a muddy, inconclusive win at best. Can't upset the fanbases.

In the final analysis Freddy vs. Jason is fine. The two monsters are good at what they do, and there are a lot of fun kills. Just try not to make sense of the plot, because it's... bad.

Copyright 2010 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 2010 by New Line Cinema.

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6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

The remake that few were clamoring for, A Nightmare on Elm Street had the DNA, the talent, and the tools to be a good movie. Reboots of classic films really need to justify their own existence, though, and this "Elm Street" retread just... doesn't... quite get there.

Taking many elements from the original Elm Street and rearranging them into something different, the reboot connects Freddy and his teenaged targets in a more grotesquely intimate fashion. The cast were all children attending preschool when they met Krueger before he died, and his predations led their parents to murder him. It's the same revenge story as before, but this time around Freddy's fate isn't left to simple exposition. Visual storytelling is a good thing...

... but, er, this time around it's a bit much. Where Freddy was originally "just" a child killer, he is now overtly a pedophile, a change to his story that sucks the fun out of watching him do his work. Yes, he was always a horrible man, but he was a charismatic horrible man, one with few hooks in reality. Jackie Earle Haley's Krueger is more grounded and dour, and while well-acted he's also utterly revolting. The story offers intriguing hints that this Krueger might have been wrongly accused and murdered, an angle that would have been neat to explore, only for his innocence to be kicked soundly to the curb by the end of the film. Wes Craven was wise not to include the child molestation angle in his original depiction of the character.

Freddy aside this cast is also not that fun to watch. Kyle Gallner as Quentin is pretty solid, but everyone else is just sort of... there? Mara Rooney as Nancy is particularly egregious, and her acting in most of the film seems pretty stilted and bored. She's got her screams down pat but that's all. Heather Langenkamp's Nancy in the original is dynamic, paranoid, and eventually quite angry, qualities this Nancy lacks. It's tough to sympathize with a final girl when she doesn't seem that interested in surviving.

Technically A Nightmare on Elm Street is pretty great. It looks better than any of the other movies, the new, ash-strewn look of Freddy's dreamscapes is fantastic (though transitioning into the dreams is way too abrupt), and getting to see the parents hunt Freddy down is a nice piece of lore that was largely lacking in the older movies. At best, though, this remake is a middling effort.

Copyright 1988 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1988 by New Line Cinema.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

The Dream Master is a weird entry on this list. A blend of bad and good in almost equal amounts, it's so close to tipping in either direction that putting it smack-dab in the middle of the rankings seems appropriate.

Taking place a little while after Dream Warriors, The Dream Master brings back three of that movie's survivors... and then promptly offs all of them in the first 30 minutes. Freddy is back, baby, and he's ready to target teens who didn't grow up on Elm Street. Freddy's new favorite tormentee is Alice, another high school student, though an inherited power to connect with the dreams of her friends quickly makes her more than the serial killer can handle. Eventually they square off in a funky dreamtime church, and... there is kung-fu fighting involved. (And that's not even the first time it happens in the movie.)

Make no mistake, much of the action in The Dream Master is stupid. Freddy spends way too much time in the limelight, capering about as he spews mocking one-liners. He even throws on a pair of sunglasses at one point. Robert Englund is still a ton of fun to watch, but Freddy becomes less and less scary the longer he's on the screen. Yet once you embrace the fact that this is now barely a horror movie in the traditional sense, The Dream Master is pretty enjoyable. The sets are good, the lighting is perhaps the best in the series, and Freddy's nightmares are creative, if not always well-executed. This is also the first time Freddy really gets punished at the end of the film, featuring some fantastic costume work as he goes down.

The Dream Master is not even close to being a great film. It's definitely worth watching if you like Freddy, though, and it's a decent follow-up to Dream Warriors alongside The Dream Child.

Copyright 1985 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1985 by New Line Cinema.

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

Following up on a movie as good as A Nightmare On Elm Street was never going to be easy, and the loss of Wes Craven as writer and director made the uphill battle even steeper. It should be no surprise, then, that Freddy's Revenge is just not as good as the original - though in this writer's humble opinion, it comes a lot closer than you might expect.

Shifting the attention away from Nancy, Freddy's Revenge focuses on new-to-town Jesse, an oddball young man who starts to lose his mind as Freddy haunts his dreams. Jesse has it even worse than Nancy, his behavior increasingly erratic with each fresh nightmare. The poor guy can't even get his parents to believe that something is wrong, despite the temperature in their house going way up for no reason and their pet bird exploding in mid-flight. (Yes, that happens.) The way Freddy toys with Jesse throughout the film is grim stuff, and Mark Patton puts in a great performance as the beleaguered teen.

Unfortunately, Freddy's Revenge starts to veer into silly territory in the third act, and Freddy's inept invasion of a pool party deflates the threat he posed in the first two-thirds of the film. The showdown between Freddy and Jesse's girlfriend Kim manages to salvage some of the tension, but the muddiness of Freddy's defeat turns the last twenty minutes into an unfortunate anticlimax. Still, if you liked the first A Nightmare On Elm Street, Freddy's Revenge is a pretty solid follow-up.

(Side note: Wasn't Freddy looking for revenge in the first movie? Isn't he looking for revenge in all of the movies? What an odd subtitle.)

Copyright 1994 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1994 by New Line Cinema.

3. Wes Craven's New Nightmare

The end result of a steady dilution of the Freddy brand, New Nightmare feels like Wes Craven's attempt to bring his creation back under his control, and he does it in the most meta way possible. Though not the best of Craven's work, New Nightmare is still an interesting thought project, with the bonus of returning Freddy Krueger to his quieter, deadlier roots.

The movie assumes that the A Nightmare on Elm Street series is a fiction within a fiction. It casts Heather Langenkamp as herself, years after her starring role as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Heather enjoys a successful career as an actor but is plagued by nightmares that hint at a malevolent presence. Soon her and her son come under assault by Freddy - or a creature that appears as Freddy - and she must grapple with a blurring reality that relives many of the events of the original Elm Street movie. Wes Craven, Robert Englund, John Saxon, and a few other Elm Street alumni appear as well.

Though New Nightmare is a too quick to jump into the action and wastes some of its cast members - having Englund the actor square off against Freddy the monster would have been really neat - it's nevertheless an interesting story. This Freddy is much closer to the original incarnation, and though he still offers the occasional taunt or over-the-top torture he generally operates from the shadows, only emerging fully for the third act. There's more tension as a result, and questions regarding Heather's sanity turn New Nightmare into a far more cerebral experience than many of its predecessors.

Is New Nightmare the quintessential Freddy story? No. Many of the previous movies are far more creative in their lore, their visuals, and the quality of their kills. Some of the special effects in New Nightmare are, in fact, downright bad. It's still a fun movie, though, and it provides a rare fictionalized glimpse at the actors who stand behind their characters.

Copyright 1987 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1987 by New Line Cinema.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Generally regarded as one of the best Elm Street films and overshadowed only by the original, Dream Warriors is one of the most bonkers movies on the list. Bringing Wes Craven back for another stab at Freddy Krueger, the third film in the franchise should not work as well as it does, given how much is going on.

Freddy is still busy getting his revenge on the families of Elm Street, and the resulting night terrors have sent a handful of teens to a local psychiatric hospital. The staff thinks they're all crazy - that is, until Nancy of A Nightmare on Elm Street steps in to band the teens together in a desperate attempt to fight Freddy. Most of the performances are strong, and this is a big cast for a horror movie. It's a testament to the strong writing of Dream Warriors that the film introduces no less than seven teens for Freddy to brutalize, yet almost all of them are distinct, memorable, and sympathetic.

While most of the movie takes place in the hospital a significant chunk of the screen time - particularly the ending - is devoted to Freddy's dreamscape, and Craven managed to craft a world that is far more evocative and interesting than the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. It might even go a bit too far, robbing the final act of some of its tension as the teens use their 'dream powers' to fight back against their tormentor. There are times where Dream Warriors feels more like a fantasy film than a straight-up horror, and the action and effects do not hold up as well as they should. This is also the introduction of the smarmier, more sarcastic version of Freddy Krueger, who while handled well here is played up way too much in the later films.

Still, if you can get past some less-than-stellar action and an abrupt finale, Dream Warriors is one of the best Freddy movies you're going to find. Just be prepared, yet again, to be annoyed with most of its authority figures, as the adults still don't get that Freddy is a problem.

Copyright 1984 by New Line Cinema.

Copyright 1984 by New Line Cinema.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

It shouldn't shock anyone that Freddy's first outing is still his best. With a standout cast that introduced Johnny Depp to the moviegoing world, A Nightmare on Elm Street is just the right balance of tension, humor, and inventive gore.

From the very start the characters of the film are under threat. Someone - or something - is stalking the dreams of the kids of Elm Street, and they're all rightfully afraid to go to sleep. Eventually the cast learns that their nightmares are the retribution for the sins of their parents, and as their numbers dwindle the remaining kids must find a way to fight back against Freddy Krueger, the resident ghost of Elm Street.

The teens in this movie are not nearly so disposable as they were in later instalments, and recurring series protagonist Nancy, played by Heather Langenkamp, makes a great final girl as she struggles valiantly to remain sane in the face of a phantasmal killer. Nancy's increasingly-radical attitude is perfectly understandable, given that she can't let herself fall asleep, and her wild attempts to get the adults around her to believe her is just as fun as her encounters with Freddy. Depp does fine as Nancy's boyfriend, though most of the attention is on Nancy.

Freddy himself is at his most elusive in this film, emerging from the shadows in odd, freaky flickers yet remaining omnipresent throughout the plot. The tricks and torments he inflicts upon his victims are genuinely quite creepy, and the kills - turning one teen into a gigantic gout of blood, for example - remain excellent by modern standards. It's unfortunate that the final battle against Freddy devolves into a Home Alone-esque series of traps, but aside from that this is peak Elm Street.

A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't get better than the original. If you can only stomach one of these movies, make it this one.

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