By the time Wes Craven (RIP) made A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first cycle of the slasher boom started by Halloween was starting to wear thin. Audiences had already seen their fair share of madmen in masks lumbering about stalking babysitters and camp counselors, so it was high time for someone to come in and shake things up… someone with a bit more personality. Enter Freddy Krueger, the first of his kind: not a faceless, ominous shape, but rather a cackling trickster, one who was just as likely to torment his victims with his sharp wit as he was with those four razor-fingers. The Nightmare series has two things working in its favor that the other slasher series just can’t compete with. The first is the level of filmmakers working behind the scenes; the Nightmare entries proved to be a regular talent farm, with many of its writers and directors going on to be Oscar winners and major studio blockbuster helmers alike. The second is Freddy himself, and the life imbued in him in every single outing by the incomparable Robert Englund. Whether playing the clown or the killer, Englund weathered the storm of eight different and sometimes wildly-diverging movies, and in the process created one of horror’s most indelible icons. Some of the films surrounding him may not have been much to write home about, but Englund’s presence made sure that all had at least some redeeming value just by virtue of having him around (and how much that presence actually made a difference, as you’ll find out below in the lone entry Englund doesn’t appear in).
As bad as many remakes/reboots are, it’s hard to see anything turning out any worse than this completely lifeless redo of Wes Craven’s classic. It’s not even that the movie is merely bad, it’s just bland - made not by fans of the franchise or visionaries with a new spin, but rather to make a quick buck by capitalizing on one of horror’s most recognizable icons. Of course, that’s what all the Freddy sequels did, but they at least had something fun or interesting thrown in no matter how crass or unwatchable they became. Director Samuel Bayer doesn’t do much other than (poorly) recreate scenes from Craven’s original added with his own dull, Korn music video aesthetic. But what’s most egregious are the main characters: as dopey as they were in the original, Craven got us to care about Nancy, Glen, Tina and the rest by giving them their own personality, which in turn made it all the more horrifying when they died. Here the leads might as well be cardboard cut-outs, for all the personality they’re given. Rooney Mara has since proven herself to be a fine actress, but she and the rest of the cast aren’t given much of anything to do in between the snooze-inducing dream sequences. And as for Freddy himself? I am a big fan of Jackie Earle Haley, and he seemed to be a solid choice when he was first announced as the new Fred Krueger, but there is nothing memorable about his turn here. Whether it was due to the script or the direction or Haley himself, we’ll likely never know, as I don’t think he’ll get another chance to reprise the role.
By the time this sixth and supposedly “final” installment rolled around, Freddy Krueger had long since abandoned being the arbiter of viewer’s nightmares everywhere and had instead settled into essentially the role of Bugs Bunny: outsmarting the doomed teen Elmer Fudds at every turn with a quip and a wink. It’s an understandable direction to take given Freddy’s popularity at the time, but the film fails by not being very funny in the first place. It is somewhat more coherent and has a more compelling story than some of the previous entries, but director Rachel Talalay starts the film at 11 and only turns up the volume from there, making the film an assault on the senses from the first frame to the last - the jokes are too broad to be funny and keep the film from being tense or scary in any way. I don’t think audiences would have minded in the slightest if this had turned out to be the true final Nightmare, but the series still had some juice left in the engine… for better or worse.
7. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
The Dream Master picks up right where the previous film left off, and while it tries to capture that same blend of funhouse horror/comedy the previous film conveyed so successfully, it’s here where the tonal scales start to slide in the wrong direction. It’s with this fourth installment where the series begins to slide into Roger Moore territory, where Freddy Krueger sails from his iconic status and begins to dip into self-parody. This is the film where Freddy raps on one of the many pop songs that play endlessly on the soundtrack, right before sliding on a pair of Ray Bans whilst chilling on a sunny beach. It’s Freddy Krueger for the MTV generation (MTV is actually featured heavily in one scene), where Wes Craven’s original idea is exploited in the very worst of crass commercialism. Director Renny Harlin has an eye for engaging visuals, but the story barely hangs together, with a whole bunch of nonsense about a “dream master” lazily building off the kid’s dream powers in the previous film. It’s certainly not a boring movie, but it was definitely the starting of the nosedive that sent the Nightmare series spiraling down the toilet, quality-wise.
Stephen Hopkins attempts to scale things back from the MTV-fueled previous installment, with a film that relies more on gothic atmosphere rather than 80’s excess. But The Dream Child still falls quite short of the mark, mainly due to Lisa Wilcox’s Alice just not being nearly as engaging a lead as Kristen or Nancy. The whole movie suffers from the characters not being interesting or empathetic enough, quite possibly the most annoying teens in the whole series (which is saying something). A shame, as the story this time out is much more focused and coherent, and Hopkins provides some of the better dream imagery of the entire series.
Long considered the red-headed step-child of the franchise, there is little in the second installment that keeps continuity with the rest of the series - either the film that preceded it or the films that came later. Indeed, at times the movie feels like it belongs to another franchise altogether, with Freddy shoehorned in at the last minute. But when taken on its own, Freddy’s Revenge is nifty little horror movie, cooking up its own themes and subtext separate from the rest of the Nightmare world. Of course, you’d have to be blind not to notice the latent homosexual themes (or a middle-aged white filmmaker, as several of the film’s crew claim to have not noticed while filming in the series documentary Never Sleep Again), which provide an interesting perspective to a slasher film, what with the genre’s tendency to focus on promiscuous young hetero-normative teens. But that exact same “sub”-text is precisely where the interesting elements of Freddy’s Revenge end - the rest of the film barely holds together from a story standpoint, with some pretty wild jumps in character and logic. But it’s a far-more fascinating film than most of what’s offered in the rest of the series, and worthy of re-examination.
All right, so Freddy vs. Jason isn’t exactly a great movie. After almost fifteen years in development, you have to wonder what exactly was so special about this script (one of several throughout the years) that finally gave this no-brainer the green-light. Perhaps it was because it was just bland enough that it proved thoroughly inoffensive to all involved parties. The kids on display here are the absolute worst in either series. The older films at least gave their annoying teens a kind of goofy charm - here they are literal placeholders, there to give this shambling mess of a movie some vague hint of a “story” to play out between all the kills and the final brouhaha. But terrible characters and a thin script wind up not really mattering all that much in the final analysis, because once Freddy and Jason start whacking away at each other, everything else just sort of falls to the wayside. Ronny Yu is a master at making slick horror imagery, and gives the fans exactly what they want when it comes time to deliver on the title bout. Freddy and Jason’s showdown is as bloody and thrilling and hilarious as any fan could’ve ever hoped for, with a resolution that could go either way, depending on what point of view you take. They could have populated the script with as much bullshit as they wanted: once the titular horror icons start hacking away at each other, nothing else in the movie really matters.
The Freddy Krueger that is popularly known truly starts here, in the third entry. The previous two films were massive successes, but Dream Warriors laid the groundwork of what would become the bulk of the series, turning Freddy into a more comedic figure that jokes around before killing troubled teens in various creative and effects-laden dream sequences. The film successfully blends horror and comedy in a way that none of the others could quite capture, with director Chuck Russell skillfully walking that tonal tightrope and rarely stumbling towards the finish line. It also helps that the film is a proper sequel to the original film, with Wes Craven having a hand in the script and featuring the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson to help make the film feel more a part of the Nightmare world than Freddy’s Revenge ever could be. The rather-large ensemble makes it a bit unwieldy at times, and some of the acting leads to shaky moments here and there, but old pros like Craig Wasson and Laurence Fishbourne help pick up the slack from some of the more inexperienced young actors. In spite of all that, the film remains an absolute blast from beginning to end, a rollicking horror funhouse of a movie that’s just as much fun to watch today as it was thirty years ago.
New Nightmare is something of a miracle: how many series would be so willing to experiment and play around with their proven-successful format by the time the seventh installment comes to pass? But thank Satan New Line had the chutzpah to bring back Wes Craven and let him do his thing without having to kowtow to the commercial demands of what audiences had grown to expect of the Nightmare series at the time. Craven strips away the cartoon that he had become to bring Freddy back to a place of true nightmare-inducing status, cleverly inserting him into the real world where he had become such an icon. In this film, Freddy is an ancient entity powered by the success of the Nightmare series(an idea that’s loaded with meta-thematic potential), and proceeds to terrorize the real-life Heather Langenkamp and her son. Craven, Englund, John Saxon and many more appear as themselves as the filmmaker cleverly comments upon Hollywood, horror movies and reality itself in a movie that is every bit as thrilling intellectually as it is a grand horror entertainment.
It’s a close one between this and New Nightmare, but I think the original wins out due to the purity of its concept. It’s a film that Wes Craven designed to operate on many different levels: if all you walk out with are the surface elements, then you’re left with a pretty slick and terrifying horror movie with one simple conceit, that of trying to stay awake so Freddy can’t get you. But look past that well-crafted surface, and you will find a depth that is equally as well-crafted and long-reaching. So much can be mined from the film’s hidden meanings, whether you’re looking at the children of Elm Street being held accountable for the sins of their parents, or the idea of trying to discern what constitutes actual reality when our consciousness tricks us every time we go to sleep. But what truly makes the first Nightmare the best for me are the characters. Sure, they’re goofy and played by a bunch of green actors, but Craven gets us to care about these characters in a way that most slasher films barely even bother with. This is best exemplified in Nancy, one of the great horror heroines, who’s better known for her tough, resourceful nature rather than her victimization.