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Reliving the Nightmare: A Definitive Ranking of the Elm Street Films

Happy Halloween(ish), podcast fans! With Dead Oaks: A Horror Anthology Podcast wrapping up its first season a couple of weeks ago, the plan is to fill the gap between season one and two (now to January) with some awesome, spooky content. First up is a definitive ranking of every film in one of the most well known horror movie franchises in existence, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

For the past few weeks, I've been watching (and live-tweeting) all of the nine Elm Street movies, trying to separate the best of the best from the cringe-worthy--but not in a good way--entries in the series. Keep scrolling for Dead Oaks's ranking, starting with the worst...

9 & 8. The Dream Child (1989) and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

It makes sense that two newest films in the original Elm Street cannon (New Nightmare doesn't really count, and we'll get to that later...) are the two worst. By the time The Dream Child and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare rolled around, the main antagonist Freddy Krueger had become a household name and was becoming more and more popular with not only fans of horror cinema, but also... children.

It's an odd transition, but to accommodate Freddy's growing fan base, New Line Cinema obviously began toning down Krueger's dark, grisly character and began turning him into more of a comedian. It can be argued this started as far back as Dream Warriors, but by the time these final two Elm Street movies came to be, the transition was complete, and Krueger had graduated from slicing and dicing Elm Street teens with his razor blade claws to taking them out in more imaginative, "fun" ways. In fact, in Freddy's Dead, Krueger doesn't even kill a single teenager with his claws, instead choosing to end them in such cartoonish ways as simulated video game sequences and dropping them onto beds of nails. The argument can be made that after five movies, the writers wanted to come up with something new as opposed to playing the same old record, but in this case, the saying is true: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Add all of this with the fact that the least interesting lead character in the entire series, Alice (introduced in movie 4, Dream Master) is the only one to get away without meeting an untimely end in The Dream Child, and it became abundantly clear the Freddy ship was sinking fast and would soon need a reboot.

7. The Dream Master (1988)
In a daring move, The Dream Master did something mostly unheard of for the 1980s by bringing back the surviving cast of the previous Elm Street movie (aside from Patricia Arquette, who was recast with Tuesday Knight--bonus points for a badass name), Dream Warriors, and killed them all off within the first thirty minutes. This would have opened the door for an exciting and no-holds-bar fourth installment had the replacement cast not been downright dull.

This also happens to be the fated Elm Street movie where Alice takes over as the leading lady, though it's established pretty early on that Alice doesn't have much of a personality. In fact, she's so lacking, when her friends begin being killed in their dreams, she absorbs their better traits to make up for what she doesn't have. It was almost as if the writers realized partway through that no one would like Alice, so instead of starting over, they found a way to make her somewhat likable by film's end. This didn't happen, however, and even though she somehow managed to make it through two entire movies with her life, Alice didn't return for the sixth installment (She was meant to die as Dream Warrior's cast died in this movie.) as planned, meaning her character became one of the few Elm Street teens to survive Freddy Krueger's wrath.

This film also loses major points (yet barely holds on to being better than the previous two entries on this list) for killing off two pretty awesome characters, Joey and Kincaid from Dream Warriors, whose appearance in this movie can be described only as glorified cameos. Had the movie continued to follow Kristen, Joey, and Kincaid as they realized they hadn't finished Freddy off in the previous movie, and he was, in fact, back to terrorize the group's new friends, then this one could have ended up being pretty great. Oh well.

6. Freddy's Revenge (1985)
Aside from looking like the cover of an R.L. Stine novel, the poster for Freddy's Revenge leads us to believe we're about to watch an amazing followup to the original Nightmare movie, however, with a (not-so) ambiguously gay storyline that distracts from the overall tone of the movie and a ridiculously low body count, this sequel turns into one big, awkward mess by the time it's over. And that's not even taking into account the character who gets attacked by balls (yes, balls) before meeting his end...

From a gym teacher who spends his spare time cruising S&M bars to two main characters who can't seem to decide if they're best friends or hate each other's guts, Freddy's Revenge quickly turns into every season of Dawson's Creek rolled into one... with a power-lacking Freddy Krueger trying to use the main character's body to kill again thrown in for kicks. And while Freddy trying to hatch into the real world through teen-angst-ridden Jesse is actually a pretty cool idea, the movie is bogged down with pretty much everything imaginable (spontaneously combusting birds included) to be taken seriously.

Freddy's Revenge gets points for sneaking in some LGBT-friendly (I think?) content--especially since the lead actor eventually came out as gay--but not even forward-thinking plot points and gnarly special effects can save what many people who aren't me would argue is the worst in the series.

5. A Nightmare on Elm (2010)
Jumping on the coattails of the Friday the 13th reboot from 2009 (that kind of, but not really stunk), Freddy Krueger was revamped and brought into a new generation with hopes of him haunting the nightmares of millennial teens and twenty-somethings for many sequels to come. However, shaky execution, miscasting, and the flubbing of some key moments from the original turned this potential multi-film reboot into a forgettable dud that fans of the original series like to pretend doesn't exist at all.

I, admittedly, don't hate the Elm Street remake as much as many people, and I was actually pretty pumped about it after seeing it for the first time. (That opening scene!) It wasn't until rewatching the original that I realized two things. 1) No one (no one!) will ever be able to play Nancy Thompson other than Heather Langenkamp, and 2) in trying to bring the series back to its dark and grisly roots, the people who made this movie forgot to make us care about the characters... like, at all. Nancy is lethargic and timid while her counterparts don't offer much more than some okay one-liners and good looks for the duration of the film.

On one hand, the reboot did something the original was too afraid to do in outing Freddy Krueger as not only a child killer, but a child molester, which probably makes this the darkest Elm Street movie to ever exist. (The Polaroids he kept of the kids... ew.) On the other hand, you can't mess with greatness, even if the first movie had some missed opportunities and suffered from a low budget. Throw in the fact that the infamous bathtub scene was glossed over and Quentin (this movie's Glen) not only failed to get sucked into his bed and shot back out as ridiculous amounts of blood, but actually helped save the day in the end (What happened to girl power?), and you have a recipe for a movie fans of the original aren't about to accept as superior.

4. Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)
I loved a lot of things about Freddy Vs. Jason as a kid (and as an adult), but those things don't actually make it a good movie. It had been right at a decade since an Elm Street movie had been made (longer since a canonical one had been made), and it was genuinely cool to see Robert Englund taking on the Freddy role again. It was genuinely cool to see two horror icons having existed in the same universe the entire time, though no one knew for sure. It was cool to see them fighting each other. So on and so on...

What wasn't cool in this long-awaited installment was pretty much just the acting. In fact, it was downright terrible.

From thirty-something-year-old high school students to Kelly Rowland not sticking to what she does best--singing, anyone not playing Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees in this movie legitimately brought it down. I couldn't force myself to believe the characters were playgin who they said they were, let alone like them long enough to root for them to survive. In retrospect, I guess a large portion of this movie was about rooting for your favorite villain to kill them all, but still, we all knew someone was going to make it alive, and it didn't really matter who.

Some of the things this movie got right though, include the backstory of Freddy having been forgotten and rendered powerless as a reason for the duel between him and Jason. And though Krueger pretending to be Jason's mom in his (dead?) dreams wasn't exactly the most creative plot device in the world, it got the job done and lead to some epic battle sequences complete with an explosion I still rewind and watch multiple times to this day.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Most people would probably rank the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie as number one on this list, simply for the fact it's the original and jump-started a truly epic series. However, no one can deny this movie isn't perfect--though it's still damn good.

From attempting to make a truly one-of-a-kind horror film to making the best of an incredibly low budget, the first Elm Street movie did what it could with what it had, and succeeded tremendously. The casting was perfect, especially when it comes to Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, Johnny Depp (in his first film role!) as Glen, and John Saxon as Nancy's father. The chemistry between the actors is there, which makes the chemistry between the characters believable.

And though certain things could have been done better, like giving some more information about Krueger's backstory or establishing some clearer nightmare/real world rules (No one knew if or how many sequels there would be.), A Nightmare on Elm Street is a solid film that spawned eight other movies in its saga for a reason.

2. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

If you take a minute to research most of the lower-ranking movies on this list, one running fact will become apparent: after a certain point, Wes Craven stopped being involved with the Elm Street movies... and it was abundantly clear. However, after the travesty that was Freddy's Dead: The Finale Nightmare in 1991, Wes Craven came back on board to do something that likely had never been done before; reboot a horror franchise from within its own franchise.

When New Nightmare came out, it didn't try to pretend the previous six Elm Street movies didn't happen--it blatantly said they were just that: movies. Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, and others returned, but instead of playing their original Elm Street roles, they were playing themselves. They were actors who had starred in the Elm Street movies and who were coming back for one final sendoff, that is until some demonic force saw the Freddy Krueger character as a perfect embodiment for its entrance to the real world... via Wes Craven's own dreams, no less.

Admittedly, this movie sounds like and definitely could have ended up a mess, but it didn't! Maybe it was because audiences needed a refresher from the now ridiculously convoluted Elm Street story, or maybe it was because it was something so weird and meta, New Nightmare worked. And with a truly evil-again Freddy and gruesome, awful deaths that felt like they mattered (Shout out to Tracy Middendorf for getting the best [and saddest] death of the entire series.), New Nightmare became my personal second-favorite Elm Street movie of all time, leading us to...

1. Dream Warriors (1987)
It's not often the third movie in a franchise takes the award for the best movie in a franchise, but A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors gets the honor of obtaining this rare prize.

The film expands on the Freddy Krueger legend, advances the plot from the first movie without getting too much into the not-great second movie, and gives us characters--both new and old--we, as an audience can care about. (I'll admit I was actually nervous about what would happen to Joey over the course of this movie; the kid was so likable, but constantly in danger. Sheesh!)

One of the best things about Dream Warriors is to see how far the Elm Street teens and the town of Springwood, Ohio have come since Nancy and Jesse first beat Freddy Krueger. The film states that it has been several years since Freddy's Revenge (Nancy is a grad student now, anyway.), and even though Freddy's back kind of without much of an explanation, he's now menacing a group of teens who have been institutionalized because of their experiences--which, in my opinion, shows just how far the parents of Springwood are willing to go in order to keep Krueger a secret.

And the expansion of the story doesn't end there. Nancy and her father (now a disgraced, alcoholic shell of the policeman he used to be) have been on the outs since the first movie/the death of Mrs. Thompson at the hands of Freddy. And though it isn't a huge part of the plot, their attempt at reconciliation and Mr. Thompson's sacrifice of himself to help end Krueger for good are some exceptional displays of character development, especially for a horror movie. Top that off with Nancy's own death--while she thinks the ghost of her father has come to tell her he's sorry--marks a transition from the "old" Elm Street movies to the new ones. Nothing was quite the same for the series after Dream Warriors, and even if it was on accident, it was as if the ending of this movie was warning us of that.

There you have it, folks. The definitive ranking of all nine A Nightmare on Elm Street films. Do you agree? Disagree? Couldn't care less? Leave a comment explaining why! 


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