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The Definitive Ranking Of The "Nightmare On Elm Street" Movies

"One, two, Freddy's coming for you..." To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Nightmare on Elm Street, here's a ranking of the iconic horror franchise.

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By the time Freddy's Dead hit theaters in 1991, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was more comic relief than terrifying slasher villain. Rather than attempt to return him to his horror roots, the "final" Nightmare on Elm Street sequel opted to go all out with an absurdly over-the-top clusterfuck of a movie: cartoonish kills, unnecessary backstory, and celebrity cameos — including then-married couple Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold as two frenzied Springwood residents desperate for new children. It's an embarrassing mess, culminating in a 3D finale that's interesting only as a time capsule of awful '90s things.

Freddy's Dead follows Maggie Burroughs (Lisa Zane), a social worker for troubled teens who learns — spoiler alert — that she's Freddy's long-lost daughter. (Which, what?) There are a lot of pointless flashbacks — including Alice Cooper as dad to self-mutilating teenage Freddy — but the real problem with Freddy's Dead is overkill. Literally. At one point, Freddy drags a bed of nails under a falling victim (Shon Greenblatt) while looking at the audience, as if to say, "Yes, this is really happening." The true lowlight, of course, is the atrocious video game nightmare featuring Breckin Meyer as a hapless stoner.

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For the most part, the Nightmare on Elm Street series skirted around the pedophilic implications of Freddy's former life as a child murderer. And you know what? That's OK! This is dark, dark territory to navigate, and the main problem with the severely flawed Nightmare on Elm Street reboot is that it fails to realize just how unpleasant a concept this is to explore. The idea of making Freddy Krueger scary again is a noble one, but focusing on the sexual abuse he inflicted on the children of Springwood is incredibly unsettling. There's nothing fun about this Nightmare, which also sucks almost all of the surrealism out of its dream sequences: It's just a bleak, uncomfortable slog.

At the same time, the Nightmare reboot isn't a complete disaster, if only because it managed to attract strong actors like Rooney Mara and Connie Britton to anchor the misguided script. It also pays homage to the iconic shots of the original, including Freddy's glove coming out of the bathtub and Nancy's vision of her dead friend (Katie Cassidy) calling out to her from a bloody body bag. Unfortunately, that's not nearly enough to compensate for the bad CGI (Freddy emerging from the wall above Nancy's bed ends up looking like something out of The Scorpion King) and a miscast Jackie Earle Haley, whose Krueger makeup looks more reptilian than burn victim.

What's sad about The Dream Child's ultimate failure is that Alice (Lisa Wilcox) has all the makings of a great Final Girl. But there's too much going on in the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street, which flashes back to Freddy's conception — his mother, Amanda Krueger (Beatrice Boepple), was a nun raped by a hundred maniacs — and has Freddy possessing Alice's unborn child in an effort to... rebirth himself? It's never really clear. Krueger appearing inside Alice's uterus is one of the most batshit things to happen in any Nightmare film, and even that's not enough to elevate this movie past standard sequel dreck.

Sure, it could be worse (see above!) but the whole thing is both weirdly high-concept and completely uninspired. The kills, aside from Greta (Erika Anderson) being force-fed to death, are weak. The black-and-white comic book nightmare that Mark (Joe Seely) dreams into existence is almost as bad as Freddy's Dead's video game sequence. The scariest thing about The Dream Child is Jacob (Whit Hertford), the hollow-eyed young boy who turns out to be Alice's future son. (Again, try not to think about it too much.) Even the somewhat inspired body horror thrills of Alice pulling Freddy out of herself were done more effectively in Freddy's Revenge.

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Make no mistake: Freddy vs. Jason is dumb. But it is the best kind of dumb, a gloriously gory, overworked crossover of two horror franchises that don't really work together. Why fans were so eager to see Freddy take on hockey-masked mama's boy Jason (Ken Kirzinger) is unclear: Freddy was designed to be the antithesis of the strong, silent slasher killer that Jason and Halloween's Michael Myers embody. In the real world, Jason wins, because have you seen him? In dreams, Freddy has the upper hand every time, because he controls dreams. It's never a fair fight, which makes the concept of a showdown silly. Once you get past that, however, it's actually pretty damn fun.

And honestly, the impetus for Freddy taking on Jason — Freddy enlists Jason to make the teenagers of Springwood fear him again, but Jason starts killing all of Freddy's potential victims — is actually pretty clever. Because this movie mash-up was made for diehard horror fans, there are plenty of references to both series, including a trip to Westin Hills, the psychiatric hospital from Dream Warriors. And while Jason gets to do most of the heavy lifting, Krueger has some great moments — his kills are more brutal than standard Nightmare fare to keep up with the Friday the 13th franchise's epic body count, but he still gets to be Freddy. At one point, he's a pot-smoking caterpillar, because of course he is.

The Dream Master giveth, and The Dream Master taketh away. There is a lot to love about the fourth Nightmare installment, but the movie's blend of the exceptional and the awful average out to mediocrity. Which sounds worse than it is — for being the third sequel in a horror franchise, The Dream Master is actually better than expected. Once you get past the recasting of Patricia Arquette with Tuesday Knight — and to be fair, it's a hurdle — you can at least enjoy some of the series' most creative kills. Of course, this is also the film that gave us Freddy Krueger in sunglasses, which is the perfect encapsulation of the character's devolution from truly frightening adversary.

Focusing on the good, however, The Dream Master introduces us to Lisa Wilcox as Alice, who is a lot more fun here than in the next film. She matures from helpless to heroine, even echoing Ripley's famous Aliens line when she tells Freddy, "Get away from him, you son of a bitch." As far as the nightmares go, nothing tops Debbie's (Brooke Theiss) Cronenbergian transformation into a cockroach. The moment her arms snap off to reveal insect legs is body horror at its finest, and that's not the only gorgeously gruesome visual this film offers. See also: Freddy eating the screaming heads of his victims off a pizza, and, in the film's climax, the souls literally tearing Krueger apart.

The question of where to place Freddy's Revenge on a Nightmare on Elm Street ranking is a tough one. As a Nightmare film, it's lacking. The rules established by the original Nightmare on Elm Street are tossed out the window. In fact, the internal logic is so off that the next sequel, Dream Warriors, essentially pretends Freddy's Revenge never happened. Taken as an allegory for a gay man's struggle with his sexual identity, however, Freddy's Revenge is actually kind of brilliant. Is it scary? No. But it's pure camp perfection, the kind of movie where a character can say, "He's inside me, and he wants to take me again" with a straight — ahem — face.

Although the homoerotic subtext in the film was long denied, it's frankly impossible not to see what's really going on as Jesse (Mark Patton) finds himself becoming Freddy Krueger. He can't seal the deal with love interest Lisa (Kim Myers), instead seeking refuge in the bedroom of his hunky frenemy Grady (Robert Rusler). Not to mention the scene in which Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), whom Jesse runs into at a leather bar, is strung up naked in the gym showers and towel whipped. It's understandable why more "traditional" Nightmare fans are so resistant to Freddy's Revenge, but as a queer subversion of the slasher genre, it's truly unbeatable.

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There's no denying that the Scream series and all the self-referential horror films that followed owe a tremendous debt to New Nightmare, which slashed through the fourth wall by having original Nightmare on Elm Street stars Heather Langenkamp and Robert Englund play themselves alongside Wes Craven. The central conceit of the movie — Wes Craven has enlisted Heather for a new Nightmare film that begins to bleed into reality — was majorly ahead of its time. It wasn't just a wink at the audience, but instead a meta mindfuck that brilliantly blurred the lines between real life and make-believe.

While New Nightmare is not without its faults, they're easier to forgive when the movie itself is such an exciting experiment. This is the first Nightmare film to turn a critical eye on the franchise, exploring the idea of Freddy as an unlikely hero and the cult of the villain. It also dives into the national conversation about the effect of slasher movie violence on our youth, as Heather's son Dylan (Miko Hughes) begins acting strangely after watching A Nightmare on Elm Street on TV. The kills aren't anything terribly interesting — and Freddy himself, reimagined as an ancient evil, isn't at his finest. But the film as a whole is a fascinating trip, demonstrating Craven's ability to once again push the boundaries of the genre.

There's a reason Dream Warriors is so frequently cited as the best Nightmare sequel — because it is. It's faithful to the ideas of the original, but it engages in the kind of universe expansion that carries the series forward. (If only the sequels that followed had been better.) The idea that Kristen (Patricia Arquette) and Nancy (Langenkamp) can band together with a group of troubled teens to battle Krueger as dream warriors is silly on paper but surprisingly effective on screen. Like Aliens, Dream Warriors ditches the intimate horror of its predecessor in favor of high-concept action.

"High-concept" is the key here: Dream Warriors is not mindless. In fact, it's a consistently smart and creative film that manages to combine gore — Phillip's (Bradley Gregg) brutal puppet master nightmare — with humor — Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) flying headfirst into a TV set as Freddy taunts, "Welcome to primetime, bitch." The subsequent sequels never quite found the right balance, so it's extra impressive that Dream Warriors is able to maintain the right tone with Freddy, even as his quips start flying. It's also a perfect culmination to Heather's arc, as she sacrifices herself to save those around her.

Yes, the original Nightmare on Elm Street is the best film in the series. It may be an obvious choice, but that doesn't discount the unmatched success of Craven's movie, a groundbreaking and ingenious film that's still thoroughly frightening, an impressive achievement for a 30-year-old slasher flick. Nightmare is so much more than the genre from which it was born — and that's not to discredit Halloween and Friday the 13th, among others, which are great in their own right. But Nightmare is a more cerebral horror film that stretched the confines of what a slasher movie could be in addition to creating one of the most iconic horror villains of all time.

There are no cheap thrills in Nightmare, just memorable shot after memorable shot: Nancy (Langenkamp) taking a bath as Freddy's glove emerges from the water, Tina (Amanda Wyss) being torn to shreds on the bedroom ceiling, Glen (Johnny Depp) being pulled into his bed followed by a torrent of blood shooting out from the hole. And while the performances are largely standard '80s slasher fare, special attention must be paid to the great Ronee Blakley as Nancy's drunken mess of a mother. Then there's Robert Englund, who imbued Freddy with just the right amount of dark humor and menace and inspired very real nightmares for anyone lucky enough to catch A Nightmare on Elm Street at the right age.

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