Ranking the Nightmare on Elm Street Movies From Worst to Best
One of the scariest things about Freddy Krueger is how he gets to you. Over the course of this ranking of every Nightmare on Elm Street movie, the horrible fact his victims face is the knowledge that, sooner or later, they’re going to need to get some sleep.
While Freddy is generally confined to the realm of dreams (we’ll get to that with Freddy’s Revenge), this distinction between himself and his contemporaries in slasher film history does give him an advantage over virtually any other horror movie legend.
You can hide from guys like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. As long as you’re nowhere near that damn puzzle box, you can probably steer clear of Pinhead. They might find their way to you eventually, but you have at least some sort of fighting chance within grasp.
With Freddy, played across eight surprisingly differing films by Robert Englund and one film with Jackie Earle Haley, the odds of survival plummet. Your body will weaken with exhaustion. Everyone’s does. Your eyes will get heavy. One way or another, you are going to fall asleep.
With Freddy, you have an arrogant, cruel figure who’s aware of the futility of his victims trying to stay alive, and of the many ways in which he can shape the landscape and threats of the dreamscape for the dreamer he has trapped.
Starting in 1984 with the visionary Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street has pitted the youth against an inescapable, gleeful incarnation of malevolence. This basic premise has carried the series, which has offered impressive low-budget practical effects, a career-defining performance by Robert Englund, a wide range of memorable performances by those who have faced him, and sequels of sometimes very differing styles.
While not without some low points, I’ll admit to loving every film in the Elm Street saga on one level or another. However, since I can’t just tie every entry for first, let’s rank the Nightmare on Elm Street movies from the very best, to the ones that can be a little harder to appreciate.
At any rate, while I ultimately found this retelling of the Freddy Krueger character and story to be more frustrating than overtly terrible, there is no ranking of Nightmare on Elm Street where it makes sense for this film to be anywhere but at the bottom.
Because while Jackie Earle Haley is good as Freddy, and despite some occasionally very impressive visuals in the spirit of these FX-heavy movies, the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is at best an annoying example of a film with good components that don’t quite work in harmony.
At worst? The film is tedious, lackluster in some of its most essential casting (most of Freddy’s victims lack the spark or personality that you can find in even the most mediocre Robert Englund sequel), and doesn’t do anything notably impressive with some of the most famous scenes in the original film.
Then there is the makeup, which even I can’t defend. While I don’t hate the Platinum Dunes remakes as much as I used to, I still find it obnoxious that someone seemed to consistently believe more realistic means a better or different kind of remake.
Not really. We don’t need to see the tunnels beneath Camp Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th. Here, it wasn’t necessary to have Freddy look closer to an actual burn victim. Or whatever they thought they were doing.
As far back as 1987 at the height of the slasher film craze and the respective popularity of each character, there has been talk of Freddy Krueger going one on one with Jason Vorhees. The project kicked into high gear in the 90s, with a “cameo” by Freddy at the end of Jason Goes to Hell. Horror fans worldwide, including 9-year-old me, thought a showdown between the horror legends wasn’t far behind.
A full decade later, we got our movie.
With that sort of hype, it’s difficult to completely live up to expectations. To be sure, the plot of Freddy vs Jason, which essentially comes down to Freddy trying to use Jason (a solid performance by Ken Kirzinger) to torment a new generation of teenagers, is suitably ludicrous. For the most part, it is indeed a lot of fun to watch Robert Englund play Freddy one more time in what is really more of an over-the-top action movie than a horror film.
That last part might be a problem for some, as director Ronny Yu goes for a distinctive visual tone that doesn’t always do right by its characters. Furthermore, at times, Freddy vs Jason feels more like a Jason movie with Freddy as the guest star. There is a very good chance that this is just a slight bias on my part, since I’ve always been a bigger fan of Freddy. You could also make the argument that the movie might feel this way since it establishes Jason pretty clearly as a sympathetic protagonist.
Still not sure how I feel about that, but the movie remains fairly entertaining.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
While The Dream Child wasn’t as successful or entertaining as the previous entry The Dream Master, this story of Alice (Lisa Wilcox, carving a significant presence in one of the best horror franchises of all time) trying to protect herself, her friends, and her unborn baby (Whit Hertford, cementing a place as one of the creepiest child actors in film history) is still pretty entertaining.
One approach to the film taken by both director Stephen Hopkins, as well as the screenwriters, was to bring Freddy back to the darker tone of the earlier entries. While the whole pregnancy storyline (complete with utterly unnecessary social commentary) is consistently hit or miss, it does find some new ways to make Freddy a force of evil.
The darker tone here, combined with the frantic energy of a late 80s horror movie, makes for a fairly entertaining chapter.
Some of the dream sequences in The Dream Child, including one in which a victim (the likable Joe Seely) is reimagined as a comic book character, and another in which Freddy combines man (Danny Hassel, who really should have gone on to do more) with machine in a truly vicious fashion, are impressively nasty. Englund playing Freddy as an older entity is also intriguing.
6. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
Director: Rachel Talalay
Despite very clearly not saving “the best for last”, as the tagline promised, Freddy’s Dead is a movie I simply cannot hate. When other people set about ranking every Nightmare on Elm Street movie from worst to best, they usually keep The Final Nightmare either close to or at the very bottom.
I like the overall strangeness of a film so ridiculous, Roseanne Barr in a cameo proves to be the scariest moment. There’s also a very strong nostalgic connection to the first Freddy Krueger movie I got to see in theaters. As Freddy attaches a malevolent hearing aid to one poor kid, while transporting another poor dope into a very dangerous video game, I’m glad director Rachel Talalay, long associated with the franchise, had the opportunity to at least take Freddy into some interesting visual territory.
However, the story, which sees Freddy trying to use his own child (Lisa Zane, who is quite good) to kill kids in their dreams beyond the confines of series location Springwood, isn’t very strong. The complete lack of characters from the last two films is also impossible to ignore if you’re watching these chronologically.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Director: Renny Harlin
Freddy Krueger was in full pop culture hero swing by 1988. His overwhelming popularity with kids, a fact which speaks to the memorable special effects, Robert Englund’s appeal as the character, and other distinctive features to this franchise was never more apparent than in The Dream Master.
Picking up shortly after the events of Part 3, The Dream Master sees Freddy leaving Elm Street behind for other streets, roads, boulevards, and so forth. While no one ever bothers to even try to explain why a survivor from Part 3 can impart someone else with their powers (we’ll get to that), the premise is one of the stronger among the sequels.
At the very least, it lets Freddy loose on one of the best ensembles of young actors ever assembled for one of these films. Lisa Wilcox as Alice stands as a powerful focal point to this fact.
While Freddy leaning all the way into the joke may bother some (“How’s THIS for a wet dream?” he cackles, after using a naked woman to lure someone to a waterbed-related death), The Dream Master draws meaningful strength and charm from its cast.
This has always been a fixture of the best Elm Street films. Dream sequences are crucial. The Dream Master features a pizza of damned souls, a girl who is transformed into a cockroach, and a junkyard sequence that involves a dog urinating hellfire. Robert Englund as Freddy is also pretty important. However, just as important, at least to me, are protagonists I can get behind. This movie has that in abundance.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
Director: Chuck Russell
We are now firmly in the territory of Nightmare on Elm Street films that are very difficult to rank one above the other. Each of the next four films are true horror classics to one degree or another.
Writer/director/unintentional franchise creator Wes Craven returns for the third installment with 1987’s Dream Warriors . His contributions to the story, and only the story, gives The Dream Warriors a sense of focus that can sometimes be lacking in the other sequels. It also doesn’t hurt that Frank Darabont, who later directed films like The Shawshank Redemption and developed The Walking Dead for television, is among the contributors here.
Getting some wonderful nightmare scenes out of an extremely low budget, combined with a strong cast of newcomers and familiar faces (always good to see Heather Langenkamp return as Nancy, with genre legend John Saxon also coming back as her father), and a script which does at least feel like a conclusion to the larger Freddy saga.
That didn’t happen, as The Dream Warriors grossed over $44-million, but the film still features an appealingly sadistic Robert Englund as Freddy, as well as some of the best overall performances in the franchise.
It’s a shame we didn’t get John Saxon’s totally bonkers script, but that’s okay. The giant worm and killer TV moments we get here are pretty darn entertaining, too. Dream Warriors also features my favorite Freddy makeup from Kevin Yagher. The mangled flesh that represents burn tissue is depicted here as a sharp series of deep, jagged points, Robert Englund’s singular gaze, and violent gashes. It’s scary all on its own.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Director: Jack Sholder
Freddy’s Revenge has the distinction of being perhaps the most controversial entry in this ranking of every Nightmare on Elm Street film from worst to best. The film received decidedly mixed reviews upon release. Some still dislike the film for breaking the rules of this cinematic universe by having Freddy attack kids in the real world. There are also some who fault the film for not bothering to go back to Nancy’s story from part 1.
Indeed, New Line Cinema was so understandably ignorant of what they had on their hands, they even briefly thought it would be okay to replace Robert Englund with some extra in Freddy makeup.
Others still hate this story of Freddy trying to possesses the body of a young boy (Mark Patton, as one of the most compelling horror protagonists of the decade) for what they perceive to be a homosexual subtext.
As others have pointed out, and as was discussed at length in both Scream, Queen and Never Sleep Again, the subtext is there. You just don’t have to really engage with it, if that kind of thing really bothers you.
I could argue you’d be missing out, particularly when Patton’s Jesse wants to spend the night with his buddy Grady (Robert Rusler, another likable actor I wish had a longer resume), as opposed to the supremely cute girl who wants him (Kim Meyers, who also contributes a great deal here), but whatever. It’s your call.
While not quite as brutal or visually inventive as other films on this list, Englund and Patton find a truly unique dynamic to give Freddy’s Revenge the ability to stand as a very different sort of horror movie. With the benefit of hindsight, this movie is clever, well-paced, and equally well-acted, while asking speaking to the versatility of Freddy as a character.
2. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Director: Wes Craven
Craven returned to the series one more time to tell the boldest Freddy Krueger story to date. Some would argue New Nightmare is still the most interesting thing anyone did with this character, outside of the 1984 original.
By virtue of the fact that it’s number two on this list of the best Nightmare on Elm Street movies, I’d have to agree with those arguments.
Set in a fictionalized version of our own world, New Nightmare takes a meta-approach by establishing Freddy as the manifestation of a force of evil that has been existing as the character for the past ten years and 6 films. Craven would later dig deeper into horror movies colliding with the real world with Scream.
New Nightmare is still to me his most interesting commentary on not only good and evil, but the depictions of these things in film, and our collective and individual relationships to those depictions. Using Heather Langenkamp’s own complex relationship to her work on the series gives the movie a foundation unique to the franchise.
What you have is an Elm Street film that manages to be very firmly a product of itself, while also having a number of singular qualities and touches. Like most of this list, New Nightmare, which also features many real-life people playing themselves (including Wes Craven, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, frequent Wes Craven producer Marianne Maddalena, John Saxon, and others), is very much its own thing, perhaps more so than the other sequels.
New Nightmare offers Langenkamp’s best work as an actor to date. This, as well as memorable scenes with her son (played brilliantly by Miko Hughes), puts this film close to the top.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Wes Craven didn’t set out to create one of the most popular horror movie villains in the history of the medium. However, much to his occasional chagrin, he did. The simple story of a monstrous entity that kills teenagers in their dreams created a pop culture phenomenon that is still impressively relevant and popular to this day.
Some believe the first film is the only decent one in the series. I don’t agree with that at all, but I won’t argue with anyone who believes A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best one. The low budget is apparent, but the movie is also a formidable example of how creative you can get when you don’t have a lot of money to spend.
For example, a sequence in which Tina, who has the distinction of being Freddy’s first on-screen victim (with a stunning turn by Amanda Wyss), is dragged along the bedroom ceiling by Englund’s raggedy, chaotic take on Freddy, remains one of the best deaths in the history of the films.
But what truly makes A Nightmare on Elm Street a classic, beyond the intriguing premise and Robert Englund as Krueger, is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. Her character is into survival, after all, and Nancy exists as a stronger, more multifaceted type of “Final Girl“.
She is a victim of circumstance, as well as the constant presence of indifferent or even dangerous adults (including her parents). However, she’s not going to be done in by these things. She fights back with a fury and cunning that were rare for heroines in slasher films at the time, and are qualities that today are considered vital for any worthwhile survivor of a horror movie.
A Nightmare on Elm Street also features Johnny Depp in his first film role. Depp would later return for Freddy’s Dead, and might conceptually make for an interesting Freddy at this juncture of his career.
The scene in which he is pulled down into his own bed, before coming back up in several million liquefied chunks, is another legendary franchise moment — one of many. From start to finish, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the best horror movies ever made.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.