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  • Writer's pictureMichael Lee Simpson


From sheer horror to self-parody, here’s EW’s worst-to-best list of the Nightmare mega-franchise.

He has a burned, hideously scarred face, skin covered in cysts and boils. Yellow eyes glare over a crooked nose. A fiendish grin exposes rotten teeth. He's bone-thin, leans sideways, and wears a torn red-and-green-striped sweater and brown fedora. His trademark right-hand glove is made of leather, bolts, and sheet metal with knives as fingers. Cackling, lurking in the dark, he cuts into the flesh of his victims in their sleep.

Freddy Krueger — the notorious child-murdering monster of the "Dream Demon" species, portrayed (mostly) by Robert Englund — has been torturing the residents of Elm Street since 1984. Born from the mind of horror master Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a total of nine films, a television spin-off, multiple novels, and several comic books — grossing almost $500 million worldwide. From the unwatchable to the must-see, here are all nine A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, ranked.

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

What was at first a long-awaited remake turned out to be like plastic forks scratching a metal surface. The story is the same, as teenage neighbors are hunted in their dreams by a mangled man. The soundtrack is still in the key of D Minor, with echoes, dissonant sounds, suspended chords, and a haunting sense of doom. Jump roping girls chant the same lyrics: "One, two, Freddy's coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door." But the stark differences between 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street and the original set them worlds apart.

Though music video maestro-turned-film director Samuel Bayer (Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blind Melon's "No Rain") crafts a slick, stylized film, it still suffers from a lack of substance and a hollow screenplay. Jackie Earle Haley replaces Englund as Freddy, while Rooney Mara plays Nancy Holbrook alongside new forgettable characters. But despite its flaws, the remake was still the highest-grossing Nightmare installment — and an unforgivingly underwhelming final note for the franchise.

8. Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

As far as franchise sequels go, Freddy's Dead sits at the bottom of the barrel, squirming in muddy, worm-infested waters as the last-intended Nightmare chapter. In Rachel Talalay's directorial debut, the series grows into the self-parody it has been unintentionally edging towards since the mid-80s. The needlessly confusing narrative follows Lisa Zane as Freddy's long-lost daughter — and therapist — as she counsels victims at an orphanage between fist-fights with her father. Her mission is to kill Krueger once and for all, with the action sandwiched between out-of-place cameos by original Nightmare star Johnny Depp, Tom Arnold, and Roseanne Barr. The series, thankfully, doesn't end in what was supposed to be a major cinematic event as New Line Cinema's first 3-D movie, though Freddy's Dead will forever be remembered as one of the worst blunders on the Nightmare timeline.

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)

If the series began as an F-16 Fighting Falcon blasting into space, The Dream Child shrunk it into a bottle rocket fizzling out in the grass. A now-pregnant Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and Dan (Danny Hassel) — survivors from the fourth film — believe they're safe at last. But when Freddy plagues the dreams of Alice's unborn son, fireballs soar from hell with his reincarnation into the real world.

Gore is used for shock value, including a scene where Freddy forces a dieting model (Erika Anderson) to eat her organs before a hysterical audience, plus a dream sequence where Freddy's mother gives birth to him in the Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital. Baby Freddy rips his way out, crawling onto a pedestal, shrieking so loud the windows shatter. Needless to say, Nightmare 5 is a dreary, tongue-in-cheek freakshow, and only partially because of its rushed production after The Dream Master's unexpected success.

6. Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

While Freddy Krueger was rising to genre fame, a machete-swinging, hockey mask-wearing psychopath had a similar ascent in his own franchise. Jason Voorhees — the legendary killer from Camp Crystal Lake — is the pillar of each Friday the 13th movie since the second installment, from Friday the 13th Part II and III to a long-running streak of films throughout the '80s and '90s, joining Freddy, Michael, and Leatherface in horror villain superstardom. And by 2003, after years of ups and downs, New Line Cinema and Crystal Lake Entertainment saw an opportunity to reclaim their audience.

The plot: Freddy's been burning in Hell since The Final Nightmare, unable to occupy anyone's dreams. The only way to regain power is for the town to believe he's returned. Recruiting Jason to embark on a murderous rampage — hoping people will think it's him — their rivalry begins when Jason won't stop killing Freddy's intended victims. Directed by Ronny Yu (Bride of Chucky), this crossover film with a shared universe plays along like 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Englund is back again while Ken Kirzinger plays Jason (he was also the stuntman who doubled as the masked maniac in Jason Takes Manhattan). The resulting film is reliably mindless but not void of fun in its showdown of evil versus evil.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

By this time, children have been running around on Halloween wearing striped sweaters and clawed gloves for three years. But onscreen, the iconic villain has morphed from a terrifying, teen-murdering monster into a cartoon character throwing on a pair of shades and waving in the summertime. The story follows three surviving patients from Dream Warriors — Kristen (played by Tuesday Knight, whose cult classic song "Nightmare" appears on the soundtrack), Ronald (Ken Sagoes), and Joey (Ronald Eastman) — a year after their release from Westin Hills. Soon disappearing or getting killed off, teens Alice and Dan take center stage as they're trapped in another series of gruesome events.

Made alongside anthology television series Freddy's Nightmares, The Dream Master's production was a nightmare in and of itself. Racing against the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who later penned L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) co-wrote the first draft in mere days with first-time writer William Kotzwinkle. William received "story by'' credit and was pushed aside by other writers who didn't finish the script. Meanwhile, director Renny Harlin was left with merely a blueprint, relying on actors to improvise dialogue.

While The Dream Master is superior to The Dream Child, it's a cesspool of bizarre mythology and outdated clichés — chases down tilted hallways, blood-curdling screams, pipes blowing steam in boiler rooms — with half-baked ideas flooding the story's broken pipeline, though Brooke Theiss' Debbie transforming into a skittering cockroach and getting stuck in acid bait paste was an admittedly memorable turn. Fun fact: Mezco manufactured Debbie's character as an action figure in 2009, featuring severed arms replaced by roach legs.

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

After the massive success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a follow-up was inevitable, and the shoes to fill were as big as ever for any sequel. Freddy's Revenge takes place in the same town, on the same street, and in the same house when the Walsh family moves in. The protagonist is Jesse (Mark Patton), another high schooler experiencing nightmares.

The obvious choice was for Craven to direct, but when he read David Chaskin's script, he saw elements that didn't live up to his true vision. For one, he didn't like the protagonist being a male; it went against the "final girl" trope as portrayed in so many slasher films (the swap also conjured a homoerotic subtext, and has since become a gay cult classic). Two, he thought Freddy participates in the normal world too much; there's an unspectacular pool party scene where the water erupts in flames and Freddy attacks teens taller than him in a backyard. And three, he thought Jesse's chest being ripped apart from the inside out prevented the audience's ability to identify with the hero.

Lost on which direction to take without Craven, the studio considered making Freddy a silent, Michael Myers-like stalker donning a rubber mask rather than the quick-witted, maniacal villain we've come to know, but ultimately decided to re-cast Englund. The direction, production design, and special effects are all top-notch for the times, and the performances — particularly by Jesse's father (Clu Gulager) and girlfriend (Kim Myers) — are convincing. Although still filled with cringe-worthy scenes, there's a reason Freddy's Revenge remains a cult classic.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Among horror connoisseurs, Dream Warriors is one of the few truly loved films in the saga. As the first installment in the "Dream Trilogy," director Chuck Russell (The Blob and The Mask) treats his turf like a creative playground. Craven co-wrote the script, a young Patricia Arquette plays a prominent role, and Heather Langenkamp returns as Nancy from the original, this time as a psychiatrist treating patients haunted by Freddy in their dreams. As he roars through the film with a vengeance, there's a whirlwind of artistic sequences. From syringe claws and an explosive television set death to people dragged through mirrors and a sadistic puppet show involving tugged tendons, Dream Warriors pushes us into a rabbit hole of imagination perhaps more than any other film in the franchise.

2. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

At this point, the fire that killed mortal Freddy Krueger — lit in a basement by livid parents in Springwood, Ohio — has spread on the pages of every screenplay draft written for the next Nightmare movie. And then came Wes Craven's New Nightmare. What could have been an age-old, clichéd tale of Nancy picking up the pieces of her life seven years after Dream Warriors was instead constructed into something completely original — which is no small feat for a seventh series installment.

As a stand-alone meta-narrative separate from the Nightmare timeline, a demonic force from the underworld uses the Freddy Krueger character as his passage to the real world to hunt down the cast and crew of the Elm Street franchise. Yet Krueger is re-imagined here; he's scarier and darker with piercing narrow eyes and a scabbed face dripping with pus. Those most influential to the franchise step in front of the camera to play themselves: Langenkamp, Craven, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, John Saxon, and Englund as both himself and the new entity personifying the spirit of the character he'd portrayed all those years.

Marianne Maddalena, the producer of New Nightmare and the Scream franchise, also plays herself in the film. "Wes loved female heroines," Maddalena tells EW. "Nancy is pretty feminist, turning her back on Freddy and taking things into her own hands. Wes was an intellect, a true auteur. No detail was too small for him."

Craven's screenplay pulls on the right threads, weaving between the "real world" of the cast and the foundational elements of the franchise. Sinister, clever, and unpredictable, New Nightmare breaks all the rules and leaves us foaming at the mouth for another Craven phenomenon — brought shortly after that with a knife and Ghostface mask.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

On Nov. 16, 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street shot chills down the spines of moviegoers across the world, reinventing the supernatural slasher horror genre. It simultaneously launched the careers of a strong cast: Heather Langenkamp as the young Nancy, Johnny Depp in his film debut as Glen, John Saxon as Lieutenant Don, Ronee Blakley as the alcoholic mother, Amanda Wyss as Tina, Nick Corri as the rebellious Rod Lane, and Englund as an iconic boogeyman jumping out of the shadows, stretching his elongated arms in an alleyway.

Craven (who previously made The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes) burned unforgettable images into our minds: the three girls skipping rope singing the nursery rhyme; Freddy's finger blades rising from the bathtub water; Tina's violent death on the bedroom ceiling; Glen sucked into a hole in the bed where blood sprays out like a fountain, and so many more. As a landmark in cinema, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the United States National Film Registry in 2021, while Freddy is also ranked #40 on the American Film Institute's 100 Heroes and Villains list. It cuts deep, tapping into our subconscious fears — and clawing long marks that will last forever.

-Entertainment Weekly

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