Thirty years ago, the fourth film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, The Dream Master, was released. To date, it remains the third highest grossing film in the franchise, behind Freddy vs. Jason and the 2010 remake. The Dream Master marked a pivotal turning point for the enduring horror franchise. For the first time, Freddy Krueger was less scary than he was funny, and he was given substantially more screen time than in any of the earlier films.
After over 30 years, Freddy Krueger remains horror royalty alongside Jason and Michael Myers. Wes Craven’s homicidal sandman was a brilliant creation that tapped into some of our most primal fears. His popularity among horror fans is evidenced by the sheer longevity of the franchise. To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of The Dream Master, I’m going to take a look at where it ranks among the expanse of the Elm Street films.
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare
I saw this Elm Street entry in theatres with friends, and we nearly walked out. Earlier this year I re-watched Freddy’s Dead to see if time would change my perspective. As it turns out, no amount of time will ever make this atrocity right. Freddy’s Dead is easily the worst Elm Street film, a tone-deaf mess that’s neither funny nor scary. Some might argue that this sequel aims for campiness, but that doesn’t mean it hits the mark. It also doesn’t mean that’s what fans wanted. Aside from completing Freddy’s transformation into a cartoonish shadow of his former self, Freddy’s Dead further retcon’s the character, unnecessarily adding a daughter to the mix. If there’s a film in the franchise you could skip, this would be the one.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
A year following the release of the Friday the 13th remake, Hollywood tried to revive the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Not surprisingly, the results were pretty much as bad, if not worse. Despite a good cast and a few neat ideas here and there, the Elm Street remake feels bland. Even with a much bigger budget there’s not really any one scene that stands out. The normally fantastic Jackie Earle Haley is wasted beneath the Freddy make-up. Things also get uncomfortable when the remake decides to cast aside any trace of subtlety and go all in, making Freddy a child sex offender. This was director Samuel Bayer’s first (and only) feature-length film outside of an extensive background with music videos. Apparently, he directed some videos for Maroon 5, which may explain a lot of the problems with this remake.
A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child
Apparently The Dream Child was rushed into production following the success of The Dream Master. Sadly, it shows in the final product. Everything about this sequel looks like a cheapie effort with the ideas far outstripping the film’s budget. Five films into the franchise and The Dream Child can’t help but feel boring and, at times, almost perfunctory in its execution of what seems like randomly stitched together dream sequences. The storyline this time around is almost nonsensical, and Freddy’s jokey tone is almost unbearable. Robert Englund looks like he’s still having fun, but he’s probably the only one.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
The Dream Master is a much better Elm Street film than The Dream Master, but there are definitely some visible strains in the franchise at this point. Director Renny Harlin contributes several colourful action sequences that help this entry stand out. With a bigger budget, Freddy’s nightmare world is far bigger and more elaborate than in any of the prior films. Freddy’s return is completely illogical, but it’s an impressive set piece. The bug death scene is one of the best Freddy kills in the franchise, and the climax with children ripping themselves out of Krueger’s body also arguably stands as the best ending in an Elm Street film.
Not everything in The Dream Master has aged well. This sequel officially represents the point in the franchise where Freddy Krueger ceased being scary. There’s a karate montage that’s painful to watch. And Lisa Wilcox was not much of a substitute for Heather Lagenkamp.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge
A lot of Elm Street fans will vehemently protest putting Freddy’s Revenge so high up on this list. Frankly, I’ve always thought the first franchise sequel was much better than its reputation in horror circles. While it’s certainly true that Freddy’s Revenge has some convoluted logic around its re-introduction of Freddy Krueger, it’s not like 80’s horror films were known for their attention to continuity. Freddy’s Revenge is arguably the most tonally consistent sequel in the franchise to Craven’s original film. Freddy Krueger is still largely kept in the shadows, maintaining his sinister aura. Most importantly, Freddy’s Revenge still wants to scares audiences. The opening school bus nightmare is one of the scarier moments from any of the sequels.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
I’ve previously written about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare on the blog. It’s not only one of the better sequels in the Elm Street franchise, but can also be considered one of the better examples of how to re-invent a stale horror property. Craven took a big creative risk with his meta-approach to re-imagining Freddy Krueger. It wasn’t entirely embraced by audiences when it was initially released, but A New Nightmare has earned its critical re-appraisal. If nothing else, Craven deserves credit for making Freddy Krueger scary again after several increasingly cartoonish sequels.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
The Dream Warriors is the best sequel in the Elm Street franchise – period. Freddy is more prominent this time around and the puns really emerge for the first time. But this sequel capably balances out the humour with genuine scares. Director Chuck Russell also opens up Freddy’s nightmare world with more elaborate and inventive uses of Krueger. Some of the special effects may not have aged well, but there’s a dark creativity at work in this sequel that even younger fans will appreciate. There isn’t a bad death scene in The Dream Warriors with the ‘Welcome to prime time, bitch’ moment standing out.
Wes Craven worked on the screenplay along with Frank Darabont and it shows. This is easily the best story of the sequels, naturally building on the original film in the franchise. In particular, the inclusion of Heather Lagenkamp’s ‘Nancy’ and John Saxon provided a satisfying character arc not often found in horror sequels. As a bonus, The Dream Warriors theme song was performed by Dokken.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
There was absolutely no way any other film in the franchise was going to be ranked higher than Wes Craven’s original masterpiece. A Nightmare on Elm Street put a supernatural twist on the stale slasher subgenre formula and introduced the world to one of horror’s most enduring villains – Freddy Krueger. To date, Elm Street one of the scariest horror films ever made. The mythology of the film and its antagonist, its basic premise, and instantly recognizable music score all combined to give the genre an instant classic.