Throughout the 1980s, American Horror Cinema was ruled by the slasher genre, and the Mount Rushmore of this bloody age would most certainly include the likes of Michael Myers (Halloween), Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street). The fourth is always up for debate: Chucky, Leatherface, Pinhead, and even later entries such as Ghostface and Candyman are arguable. Hell, there’s a good argument for Norman Bates being given a big rock head on the side of this theoretical mountain. But it’s pretty unanimous, if we’re talking about cultural significance, that those big three have their spots. So many sequels, so many kills, so many rules, the legacy of each is just undebatable. Another indisputable fact about these bad boys of Scary Season is that they all came to their glorious rise in households through the miracle of VHS.
For me, as a here-and-there VHS collector for several years now, I liken my attraction to the VHS format to my similar obsession with vinyl collecting. They are both foolishly expensive (sometimes) and clutter up my house in ways that make me fear God. And, of course, they also offer something else (WARNING: THE WORD NOSTALGIA IS ABOUT TO BE USED IN A POSITIVE MANNER): nostalgia. I already went into nostalgia as a concept and tool to be used in film, but this nostalgia is more personal, and it's not at all hard to understand why: I grew up with these formats! Just as vinyl was discarded as a lesser format and then grew back in popularity, so too has VHS, just not as widespread and quickly as vinyl did. There are loads of different types of VHS collectors, so many it’s hard to even start listing off examples because it’s very hard to pigeon hole these passions into one exact methodology of intent.
For me, I like grabbing the occasional weirdo, but mainly, I like getting videos of movies I grew up with, movies I genuinely like, and would enjoy watching in this particular format, and honestly, the list goes on. If I want it, and I can afford it, I get it. Where the argument for the resurrection of vinyl can be justly reasoned as it "sounds better," VHS most certainly does not do anything better than DVD, BluRay or streaming. The physical media aspect exists in both, having something you own, that you can touch and display, and inventory and alphabetize or categorize by genre, release year or even biographical! But it is in the weaknesses of VHS as a medium that gives it the strength that I admire so much (and I’m sure that’s a sentiment many other collectors would share). It looks cool, it sounds weird, and each reel in those plastic cartridges carries a story that can be read between the lines, much like old 35mm film reels do. You can see when someone had rewound, or paused continuously to get a better look at that head explosive, or catch that weird goof on set that made it into the frame, or tits. Usually it’s when tits show up. Bless the little angels of the past.
Degradation is something that happens to magnetic film over time, but it really depends on how well you take care of it (we’re gonna get back to Fred Krueger very soon, I promise). You have to take care of them in ways you really don’t need to with other physical media. And the sounds! Boy oh boy, do these tapes and machines make some sweet, sweet music before the movie even starts. The beep-boop-beep-beep-beep of a VHS getting ready to roll some trailers (!!!) to a movie released in 1983 is just a special three second moment of heaven. I love it unabashedly, and with my recent acquirement of a ridiculously cool Sony SLV-998HF VCR, and an equally mouthwatering Solidex 828 VHS Rewinder, I figured what better way than to break these puppies in than to grab all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies on VHS, (through Freddy vs Jason of course, as practically all VHS stopped being produced in 2005) and give them a spin. This was my first choice for a series, given that my partner and I recently adopted a glorious kitten, which we named Freddy after like three different movie and TV references. She watched 'em all with me, on her papa’s stupid, little, loud box, and now I shall discuss each one, and rank them from my least to most favorite.
Before that though, let’s touch on what’s so special about this franchise as a whole. First off, the tone of these movies are all over the place, piece to piece, and for that, I think it might be one of the strongest overall. It can get tiresome when you’re watching the same ol’ thing, back to back, especially in a marathon-type scenario, and the Nightmare franchise is kind of built on the foundation of bringing Freddy’s antics to new levels, be they heightened, cartoonish nonsense or bringing everything back down to earth for rejuvenation or reconsideration’s sake. Michael has a knife and kills people on Halloween. Jason has a machete and kills campers and counselors at Crystal Lake. Freddy has a self-made knife glove and kills teenagers in their dreams. There’s just no competition in this in regards to how far you could stretch one compared to the others. I’m a Michael guy and Halloween remains one of my favorite movies of all time, and my favorite horror movie to watch every October 31st, but as far as franchises go, Freddy takes the cake (which is a teenager that he turned into a cake and then released a bunch of hungry, Lord Farquad lookin’ lil children on to to devour while he called someone, somewhere, a bitch). That’s another thing this dude has over the others, and something that really should put him more in competition with the likes of Chucky: he talks. And not only does he talk, my dude’s got zingers and euphemisms for DAYS. Even in the early movies before Freddy really got comfy in his Bugs Bunny routine, he’s still pretty, albeit darkly, funny.
Another great aspect to Freddy’s legacy, and why it rules, is the characters that inhabit it. The teenagers that Freddy stalks, at least for the most part, aren’t very similar to the cut and paste, horny teens of the Halloween and Friday franchises. The kids Freddy goes after are more of a collection of outcasts, sometimes even pariah-like, in the sense of how the rest of the world treats them and their pleas for help against their own dreams. There’s something that’s a bit scarier to having the whole crux of the tension of the movie revolving around the fact that the people fighting for their lives are displaced in someway from being respected enough to be believed, and that’s something a young kid can totally connect with when watching these movies by themself in a dark bedroom with the volume turned way down low so their parents don’t wake up.
Like many a horror movie franchise, they’re not all great! But boy, none of the Nightmare movies suck. And watching them on the glorious medium in which they were intended really makes you notice the charm these films held over the country for a decade, and then some!
Let’s get into it, bitch.
#9: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
A lot of shade is thrown at this movie, and mostly that shade is deserved. There’s really not a whole lot here to grab onto that the other films didn’t already produce, with much more flair and originality (duh). But I’ve always been a bit of a Platinum Dunes defender, Michael Bay’s studio which gave us many a classic, horror remake, including The Amityville Horror (s’okay), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (pretty cool), The Hitcher (ehhhhh), and Friday the 13th (very cool), as well as original stuff like The Purge franchise, Oujia: Origin of Evil, and the A Quiet Place movies. I don’t think a lot of these movies are great (some are), but I do like the change in pace they strictly adhere to when remaking these big guns franchises. I don’t need you to remake A Nightmare on Elm Street. The first one is friggin’ great. The rest of 'em are friggin’ fun. So sure, gimme something different. Mix it up, get serious, hire some pretty people made up to look tired. I’m into it.
Best Kill: Dean (Forced to slit own throat with table knife by Freddy)
Song: “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers
#8: Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
A lot of folks don’t like Nightmare 6, and for that, I applaud them. There’s not a whole lot to like about this one. But, boy oh boy, the stuff that’s good is REALLY good. While this movie was definitely trying to close out the loop on Freddy, after a fury inducing display of diminishing returns from the subsequent films, in its hedonistic attempt to just throw everything at the wall it succeeds in what its predecessor (The Dream Child) couldn’t: Being ridiculous while also having a story. While Nightmare 5 was so up its ass about being about something that it forgot to actually be about something, Nightmare 6 wears it’s about throughout, even in its name: this is the last Nightmare movie. And even though I knew it wasn’t actually going to be, there’s a sense in watching it that the folks behind the camera actually thought it would be. And they go for it. There’s a bit more of a return to form, granted it’s more Dream Master than OG, but that’s still a good recipe, and the film as a whole has that goofball vibe that Dream Child wasn’t tapping into.
Best Kill: Carlos (Head explodes from hearing aid)
Song: “I’m Awake Now” by Goo Goo Dolls
#7: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
This is the one where the juice that has been squeezed so thoroughly in the past few films dries out. Yes, you have Super Freddy, and as we ALL agree, that is a good thing to have in any movie. (Are you seriously going to sit there, reading this, and not admit to yourself that Garden State would be a better film if Super Freddy showed up in that scene where Zach Braff was talking to Ian Holm in his bed? That’s the type of energy you want to be in this world?) But the chaotic feeling of Freddy in this one gets a bit out there without ever being pulled back down by over the top kills with crazy effects work to make it all worthwhile. Even worse, and most damning, the story in this movie sucks. We’re all signing up for big kills with 15 minutes or so of story in between, but we get like four kills in this thing and the story in between those is some of the most mind numbing, dumbass crap I’ve had to sit through, and I WATCH NONSENSE!! I watch nonsense all the time, and this nonsense? No.
Best Kill: Mark (Turned into a cartoon and killed by His Royal Highness, Super Freddy)
Song: “Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter” by Iron Maiden
#6: Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
A stupid movie. But hey, when you’re making a a 2003 big matchup between these two dudes, I’d honestly be a bit upset if it wasn’t stupid. Who wants the sincerity of a deep dive into the workings of getting Elm Street’s baddie fighting the Crystal Lake behemoth? The way the writers get these two to coexist in the lame movie is pretty flawless, and the execution, for the most part, works. You get your Jason kills, complete with over the top usages of normal objects, and you also get your wacky dream sequences shenanigans that Freddy is so comfy in. My only big complaint is that in the effort to bridge these two worlds together, you never get the full effect of either. The Nightmare movies always rely on long leads in dream sequences before the big kill, and likewise, the Friday movies almost always use real life situations to build up to a ridiculous execution (no pun, but also, yeah, pun). They kind of neuter each other in that way, and I’m almost certain that the intended effect, which I’m kind of into! But once the two dudes hit each other, it becomes what we all signed up for and it’s a blast. This movie also has one of the craziest moments of racism and homophobia, all piled into a 30 second sequence, that feels so out of place from the rest of either series, that it shows just how messed up culture as a whole was in 2003.
Best Kill: Trey (Stabbed a bunch and then folded in bed by Jason)
Song: “How Can I Live” by Ill Niño
#5: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Only a couple years before perfecting the meta-horror landscape (and giving us another would-be heir apparent to Spooky Mount Rushmore) with Scream, and sixteen years before another studio and team would try to inject darkness and fear back into the Freddy mold, Wes Craven returned to the series to do both. New Nightmare is a personal favorite, as it was constantly on TV when I was growing up and had an edge to it that the other films in the franchise, including the original, always seemed to be missing. That’s not throwing shade of course, none of those movies were particularly interested in having an “edge” to them, and edginess in pop cinema really became marketable in the 90s. Returning to form with a tale of people dying in their sleep and the few people who know the cause not being believed by a single soul, this movie gives us a retcon of sorts in the fact that Freddy Krueger, as we know him in the previous films, isn’t actually in this movie because, well, he’s not real. The evil entity in this movie that draws its power from the fear we as a collective cinema watching community have given over to the fictional character of Freddy, and so it seems to enjoy masking itself in Krueger’s image while haunting those that created the original film, from stars, crew, directors and producers alike. That’s a pretty cool idea in a cool idea with other cool ideas, and the most impressive thing is that Craven really pulls it off, seamlessly connecting the rules of the original with the rules of the new horror landscape as a whole, with all the new rules he’s injecting into this fresh, original take on a Hollywood horror movie. This one in particular is awesome on VHS because you start getting some straight up early 90s era CGI, which is always a treat to have grained down and pixelated, making it look, however unintentionally, more real and dreamlike.
Best Kill: Chase (Slashed by Freddy, causing him to crash his car in the real world)
Song: “End Credits” by J. Peter Robinson
#4: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
A lot has been said by this point about Freddy’s Revenge as a queer horror film, and that’s most definitely baked into the script, directing and performances, regardless of what those involved choose to say and admit, granted some of it could go over the head of those too close to the production. Even so, you’d have to stretch pretty far when taking a look at the finished product and not see the connective tissue of this pretty popular read. But that’s not the only stuff that’s super interesting about the direct follow up to the original's massive success. Freddy’s Revenge, while not yet cementing Freddy as a wise cracking, pop culture icon of banter and wit, does grow on the darkness of Freddy himself, showing us a little bit more of the Freddy Krueger we got glimpses of in the original. At this point, Freddy was still an evil entity of unknowable power and motive, moving in and out of our main character Jesse’s dreams and visions, beckoning some form of alliance to mysterious ends. Those ends, it turns out, is Freddy being able to manifest in the real world through controlling Jesse’s body, but I don’t think this is ever clearly stated in the film. What I mean is, when we see Freddy in the real world, slashing up a bunch of teens at a pool party and fighting with Jesse’s would-be love interest, it could be read that we are seeing Freddy but the rest of the characters are seeing a possessed Jesse. Again, not a whole lot of concrete proof on something like that, except for the ending which has a beaten Freddy transforming back into a bloodied and dying Jesse, but nonetheless I think it’s a interesting angle to take after some of the rules established in the first film we’re already being bent by that film’s final act.
Best Kill: Bird #2 (Explodes)
Song: “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” by Bing Crosby
#3: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
I’ve always really dug Dream Master, and had always placed it in my ranking as: “Yeah, that's one of the good ones, but it’s not up there.” But on my rewatch, especially on VHS, this is the one that really floored me. Much like the bad problems in measuring out kills-to-story ratio in Dream Child, I started to find myself pretty bored around the halfway mark. But once you hit just after that halfway mark, yeah baby yeah, does this movie ratchet up. It’s just everything you want out of the series, neatly packed up in a dumb story but with some awesome payouts. The bug scene is one of the best in the series, and the souls of those teens, dead in the pizza scene is arguably one of the high watermarks of the entire series. While, yes, a lot of this movie doesn't make any sense in context to the previous films, (most specifically, in the radical change in character of Kristen, now played by Tuesday Knight replacing Patricia Arquette), it’s in Freddy’s character that this movie shines as the tipping point, with just enough gruesome horror mixed with comical fare to make you smile in all the right ways.
Best Kill: Debbie (Turned into a cockroach and squashed)
Song: “A Nightmare on My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
#2: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Dream Warriors is the ride-or-die Freddy movie. It continues all the rules of the original, and gives us our first full on glimpse at the personality Robert Englund could bring to Freddy outside the menacing voice and impeccable walk, throwing the audience head first into the deep end of some of the best one-liners and kills in the series overall. Much like the original, Warriors is enjoyed by the introduction to Freddy, even if you're a franchise scholar and already know all this stuff and what he’ll evolve into, Dream Warriors, similarly unleashes what Freddy is actually capable of in the entertainment department. It’s thrilling to watch, thinking of audiences back in 1987, getting reintroduced to a different speed of this iconic character. The cast is also arguably the best in general, with characters whose troubles and fears manifest into superpowers in the dream world to combat Freddy. These don’t always play out to great effect, but it is an awesome spin on how these victims are able to fight back against their tormentor, which the series would continually use throughout the remainder of the decade run through Freddy’s Dead. The return of Nancy and her father, played by heartthrob of your most intimate dreams, John Saxon, is a welcome one, and the fates of those characters being so intertwined with Freddy coming back, again and again, is some very cool stuff and played perfectly by both performers. Freddy is a curse on these people, and that unstoppable force that he represents to them is just as chilling and scary as any of the big kills.
Best Kill: Phillip (Marionetted and tossed off building)
Song: “Dream Warriors” by Dokken
#1: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
#1 has to be the original. It just has to be. It really comes down to what you love about this series, whether you would choose this one, or something like Dream Warriors and Dream Master, as your favorite. While the later films lean in on Freddy as an entertaining and creative murderer, filled to the very brim with shockingly over-the-top dream sequences and kills, the original is much more grounded in its presentation of not only Freddy, but in how it depicts dreams as well, and I think this makes it scarier, obviously. The dreams in the original are unsettling, and shot in ways that you really can’t tell you’re in a dream sequence at first, until things start to get a little crazy, piece by piece. That’s how dreams work, and adding that extra layer to the directing of the film is something that earns Wes Craven the title of “The Master of Horror.” The film also has the benefit of introducing its main antagonist bit by bit throughout the films runtime, giving one of the more interesting stories in the franchise, as our hero, Nancy, desperately tries to unravel the mystery of who Fred Krueger is, why he’s doing what he’s doing, and how she can try to stop such a seemingly indestructible and illusive force of evil. That’s good shit, man. Toss all that together with some of the best practical effects ever used in a horror movie EVER and you get yourself a bonafide masterpiece of the genre, not only the franchise.
Best Kill: Tina (Dragged and slashed by Freddy)
Song: “Nightmare” by 213
See ya next year for another VHS retrospective watch of another popular horror franchise. Got a suggestion for which series it should be? Hit me with it, bitch!
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase. Bitch.