'Nightmare on Elm Street' is the most consistent classic horror franchise
As iconic franchises churned out duds, 'Elm Street' remained mostly solid throughout
When we talk about horror, there are a few franchises that inevitably come up. Generally speaking, Halloween, Friday The 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are regarded as the three classic horror franchises. What they did for horror cannot be understated, with each of them providing parts of the horror blueprint still in use today. Despite all this though, ask a casual viewer what they think about these franchises and something will quickly come up: the perception that each franchise started strong and almost immediately started sucking once the sequels began coming out. And I can’t say that belief is completely unfounded! The later Halloween and Friday The 13th sequels are infamously bad. However, that criticism doesn’t really apply to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Instead, the Nightmare franchise remained remarkably consistent in quality throughout its 7 movie run.
(To set up the parameters, I’m talking only about the initial franchise runs for these franchises. No reboots or modern sequels are allowed. This isn’t a huge deal, as the only really good modern sequel/reboot amongst the three is 2018’s Halloween. This is also the point where I remember that gifted actress ROONEY MARA!!!!!!! was the lead in the horrendous Nightmare remake in 2010.)
1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is obviously a classic. Robert Englund immediately provides an iconic performance as Freddy Krueger, the burned and claw-handed murderer who exists in dreams to terrorize the children of Elm Street whose parents killed him for his crimes. As mentioned above, what set it aside upon its release was the personality it displayed. The dialogue is still snappy, Heather Langenkamp is a stellar protagonist as Nancy, and while Freddy is more subdued than you might remember, his quips are still unlike anything that had come forward in horror before. It’s also full of iconic horror scenes, from the hand in the bathtub to the infamous Johnny Depp blood geyser. It’s place is unarguable.
A year later came A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, the sequel that lived up to the lofty standards of the original. Now, it’s probably best remembered for it’s intensely homoerotic overtones and the effects it had on then-closeted star Mark Patton’s mental health for his role as Jesse. For that reason it is an important part of horror history, and it’s another strong outing on its own. Freddy is at arguably his most menacing here, and effects like him emerging from Jesse’s body and the creepy human-faced dogs are deeply unsettling.
The franchise took a couple years off before returning with 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. This is the point where most fans cite the franchise as starting to come off the rails, but Dream Warriors actually has a lot of charm. This is the film where the Freddy the public knows really comes into shape, with a noticeable uptick in how much he talks. This results in some classic lines (“Welcome to prime time, bitch!” comes to mind), and the kills start to become more inventive. The camaraderie amongst the kids making up the Dream Warriors really works, giving the film a lot of heart. The movie isn’t without its flaws, as taking place in a mental institution means we get a lot of dialogue about the 1980s view on mental illness, which is decidedly less chill than our attitudes today. This is also the movie that informs us of Freddy’s birth and origins, which are 1) weird and not really necessary and 2) really gross. Still, the positives here result in a still very enjoyable, scary movie.
I’m going to lump 1988’s Dream Master and 1989’s Dream Child together here, but that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable on their own. They are just the two most connected films plot-wise, with these two and Dream Warriors forming a sort of trilogy within the franchise. The ideas of “dream warriors” who can either fight or be used by Freddy are expanded upon here, and it does start to bog down the series with lore a bit. It’s an interesting concept, just taken too far towards becoming convoluted. Still, the effects are as good as ever, and these two in particular showcase the franchise’s biggest strength, which is its ability to shift in tone. Because of his ability to talk, Freddy became a part of pop culture in a “cool” way that the other horror monsters weren’t able to. For that reason, bands and artists were lining up to get involved with the franchise, resulting in top notch soundtracks for Dream Master and Dream Child. The films then borrowed from pop culture at the time, resulting in the fourth and fifth movies having a very ‘80s pop culture hipness to them that still holds up today.
1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare is the exception that proves the rule. This movie is BAD. Having killed off pretty much all of its protagonists, the film introduces the weakest cast of characters in the series. None of them are of any consequence whatsoever, so it’s hard to feel any attachment to them. We also find out Freddy had a daughter, which is another unnecessary piece of lore to juggle. Speaking of Freddy, this is the movie where he crosses the line firmly into silly instead of scary. There’s an extended video game bit that plays like slapstick comedy without any scares at all. Freddy’s Dead also originally featured 3D, which in the early 1990s means that things fly towards the screen for no reason at all. This is not a good movie on any level.
Thankfully, the franchise immediately found its footing again for the last of the original seven films, 1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. This time the series gets meta, with the plot following Langenkamp in the real world as she is haunted by the spirit Wes Craven based Freddy Krueger off of. The spirit takes Freddy as its form, and the winks to the original film and the commentary about how we view and consume horror and the legacy it leaves makes for a thoughtful–and scary again–film.
Out of seven movies, that makes one disaster and six good to great entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It’s a testament to the strong concept Craven created with the first film, and the skill of everyone involved thereafter. If the perception of the iconic horror franchises have kept you from watching, I strongly suggest you reconsider. You just might find the sequels to your favorites aren’t as bad as you’ve heard.