There's something about Freddy: why 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' is the best horror franchise

There's something about Freddy: why 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' is the best horror franchise

Asking a horror fan to pick a favourite horror series is like asking them to pick a favourite child, but for our money, we are confident that the 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' franchise is the best of the lot.

'A Nightmare On Elm Street' concerns a group of teenagers in the town of Springwood who are being terrorised in their sleep by one Freddy Krueger, a burned man with a red and green jumper and a claw for a hand.

Wes Craven's 1984 original is one of the most influential films in horror history, on a par with 'Halloween' for its sheer innovation, scares, and cultural notoriety.

Without Wes Craven, the face of horror would have been drastically different, and the world of academia may have gained a superstar instead.

Prior to his career as the master of horror, Craven was an English teacher in a secondary school in Pennsylvania and was a philosophy lecturer at Clarkson College in New York.

Like fellow horror icons Cronenberg and Carpenter, Craven had an intellectual bent to him, with his erudite, yet soft-spoken manner endearing himself to legions of horror fans.

Craven was already established as a horror hellraiser thanks to 'The Last House On The Left' in 1972, produced by 'Friday The 13th' director Sean S. Cunningham, but Craven could not get his script sold.

Every major Hollywood studio rejected the film - Disney were reported to have been interested in it, but would have required the gorier elements to have been cut from the script - but it was thanks to a small studio that the world got introduced to Freddy Krueger.

It was a fledging studio by the name of New Line Cinema that took a chance on the script, with an enterprising producer by the name of Bob Shaye - who made his fortune showing the likes of 'Reefer Madness' at prisons and colleges - who made the ultimate gamble by putting his studio on the brink to finance the film.

New Line's biggest success up to that point was distributing the films of enfant terrible John Waters, and while it had produced its own films, it didn't have an outright box office hit.

Bob Shaye would transport film reels in the boot of his car, and when the opportunity came to take his studio to the next level, he grabbed it with both hands.

The next part is crucial to the story: Craven had to waive any future sequel rights or merchandising opportunities to Shaye to get the film made, and this is the key part to the 'Nightmare' franchise becoming a world-beater.

Shaye put the future financial viability of the studio and his mortgage on the line to get the film made, so in return, he felt he was entitled to a slice of the pie.

While the production drama wasn't on a 'Don't Worry Darling' level, the production of the original 'Nightmare' film was fairly fraught with problems such as technical mishaps, actors dropping out or asking for too much money, and tension between Shaye and Craven over the ending.

In the end, the tension of a studio putting everything on the line translated into the final product, and the rest is history.

Craven's 1984 film is a masterclass in pacing, tension, scares and boasts an iconic movie monster performance from Robert Englund - but later sequels would up the ante.

Englund is as important to horror history as the likes of Lugosi or Karloff, and it is a testament to Craven's vision that he required an actor in the role of Freddy and not a stuntman.

Englund has acted alongside everyone from Jeff Bridges, Barbara Streisand, Gary Busey and Jared Leto, but the 'Nightmare' films will forever be his calling card.

'A Nightmare On Elm Street' was added to the National Film Registry in the United States last year, so in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, future generations will be able to see the genius that is 'A Nightmare On Elm Street'.


The original 'Nightmare On Elm Street' was a box office hit, and a sequel was quickly greenlit.

With Craven's film was a hit, New Line Cinema was able to get itself out of financial trouble, but that aforementioned deal between Shaye and Craven gave New Line something even more valuable - a franchise.

In the 2010 documentary 'Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy' Shaye states that the success of the film generated enough cashflow to get New Line out of trouble, but it soon became apparent that the 'Nightmare' franchise was the ultimate trump card for the fledging studio.

'Freddy's Revenge' was released roughly a year after the original film, but the franchise very nearly lost its main drawing card early into production.

Robert Englund's agent was asking for a pay raise, and New Line Cinema felt that they didn't need an overpaid actor in the role.

English actor David Warner had to pull out from playing Freddy in the first film, even going so far as to do make-up tests for the character, so New Line's thinking was "if we lost an actor, we can replace him again."

After a week with a random stuntman in the role of Freddy Krueger, it became incredibly clear that Englund was the character, and the character was Englund.

Per director Jack Sholder, he recalls the stuntman "walking like a dimestore dummy", and it was missing that livewire energy that Englund brought to the role.

Wes Craven and Robert Englund behind the scenes on the original 'A Nightmare On Elm Street'

Englund has stated that he based his performance on the likes of James Cagney in his classic gangster films, and as the 2010 remake with Jackie Earle Haley proved, it is incredibly difficult to replicate what Englund brings to the role.

With Englund firmly in place as the franchises lynchpin, everything fell into place.

'Freddy's Revenge' has become a classic among LGBTQ+ horror fans, with star Mark Patton referred to as "the first male scream queen."

Patton was closeted at the time of the film's production, and has since become one of the most fascinating people in the horror scene thanks to the sharing of his experiences of the film.

In 2019, Patton was the subject of 'Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street' where he chronicled his experiences on the set of the film and how he made peace with the reputation the film now possesses.

Patton is at peace with becoming a queer horror icon, and the 'Nightmare' franchise was just as groundbreaking off the screen as it was on the screen.

'Freddy's Revenge' was even more successful than even the original, and it was soon full steam ahead for both Freddy and New Line.

New Line Cinema would become a powerhouse in American cinema, with their ultimate triumph being their production of 'The Lord Of The Rings' movies.

In the 1990s, the studio had an auteur streak, giving young directors like David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson their breakout films and introduced the 'Austin Powers' films to the world.

However, this piece isn't about New Line Cinema - that's an article for another day.

New Line Cinema became known as "The House That Freddy Built" thanks to the success of the 'Nightmare' films - but what of those sequels?

For a brief window in the 1980s, the Freddy Krueger show was the hottest ticket in town, and the financial success of the films put New Line Cinema on the map.

All great sequels expand on the original film, and the 'Nightmare' series went from strength to strength - or would sometimes completely faceplant.

The 'Nightmare' series separates itself from the pack by having a strong visual style, an iconic villain, and key to the horror genre, it wasn't afraid to tackle social issues.

Themes of abortion, vigilante justice, teenage suicide, alcoholism, the secrets of small-town America, and per former bible student Wes Craven, the sins of the father, are prevalent through the series.

Horror is the one genre where weaving in societal issues as sub-text is expected, and the 'Nightmare' series does this better than any other horror franchise.

The combination of scares, laughs, and smarts was perfected in 'Dream Warriors', with a young Frank Darabont of 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'The Green Mile' fame serving as one of the writers on the film.

'Dream Warriors' has a 'Breakfast Club' meets 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' quality to it, and it takes the best elements from those two movies and adds Freddy Krueger into the mix.

We can think of many films that could be improved by adding Freddy Krueger into them.

It was with 'Dream Warriors' that the series went stratospheric, and it was the film that cemented Freddy's place in the culture alongside Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter and The Joker as one of the great villains.

The wise-cracking, one-liner Freddy we all know and love spawned from 'Dream Warriors', and the Willy Wonka-like quality of teasing his victims with what they want and killing them with it is an inspired move.

I'm Your Boogieman

After the success of 'Dream Warriors', Freddymania went into overdrive with Ronald Reagan mentioning the film in a speech to score a point over his rivals, Freddy Krueger hosting an hour of music videos on MTV, the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff recording a song as a homage to the series and Freddy receiving his own television series.

The 'Halloween' franchise or 'Friday The 13th' never had the intelligence to tackle headier topics, and in a genre pioneered by the likes of Romero and perfected by Peele, substance wins out over style.

That isn't to say the 'Nightmare' films aren't without their flourishes: 1988's 'The Dream Master' was directed by Renny Harlin, a mere 2 years before he went on to direct Bruce Willis in 'Die Hard 2', and the kinetic, dynamic energy of the film, full of crane shots, Hong Kong-style action sequences and an MTV aesthetic is the most stylish film in the franchise.

'The Dream Master' has the feel of an action film, and it was director Renny Harlin's idea to turn Freddy into a James Bond-style figure or a Tom Cruise-esque leading man.

By 1988, the 'Nightmare' films were at their peak, and 'The Dream Master' might be the ultimate Freddy movie.

The film was written by future Oscar winner Brian Helgeland, who later became known for his work on 'LA Confidential and 'Mystic River', but the first draft of the screenplay was submitted mere hours before the writer's strike of 1988 essentially shut down American film and television.

With Renny Harlin hired owing to his youthful energy and grizzled Finnish temperament, 'The Dream Master' reflects the chaotic energy behind the scenes.

Renny Harlin later admitted to improvising dream sequences on the set of the film as they were working off a basically unfinished script, but this strangely works in the context of the film.

The somewhat slapdash quality of 'The Dream Master' works in favour of the film, and Harlin's action movie style direction helps paper over the cracks in the script.

Even when the 'Nightmare' series dips, like 'The Dream Child' or 'Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare', there are enough risky creative decisions that make the films watchable at the very least.

'The Dream Child' was a failed attempt to combine the Freddy Krueger that was promoting films on Nickelodeon and MTV, and the Freddy Krueger that was an allegory for the death of small-town America.

'The Dream Child' tried to split the difference, but it's bad in a way that the worst 'Halloween' or 'Friday The 13th' sequels aren't.

The worst horror sequels are deathly boring, such as that one 'Friday The 13th' movie where Jason wanders around Times Square for a bit or the 'Halloween' movie that focuses on a cult for some reason, and the 'Nightmare' films always had the crutch of Freddy to fall back on if the story wasn't that interesting.

'The Dream Child' marked the fall of the Freddy empire, with it becoming "too much, too soon" for the franchise.

Released 51 weeks after the previous film, 'The Dream Child' is among the lowest-grossing films in the franchise, and the wheels soon came off the Freddy wagon.

'The Dream Child' was the end of the Freddy era of box office dominance

The pop songs, the TV show and the merchandise bonanza resulted in too much Freddy in too little time.

For perspective, 'The Dream Master' grossed $122 million when it was released in August 1988 adjusted for inflation, and not even a year later, 'The Dream Child' grossed just $52 million with inflation factored in.

Like all good trainwrecks however, it makes for fascinating viewing.

'The Dream Child' has seen somewhat of a critical reappraisal and has a strong cult following in the fanbase for trying to take Freddy back to his horror roots, and it's worth noting that the film was the one film in the franchise that ran into the most trouble with the censors.

The more graphic deaths were a major point of contention for the American censors, and the film is strangely bloodless for a slasher film.

Uncensored versions of the deaths have ended up on the internet in recent years, and the attempt to course-correct the K-man from game show host to horror villain is noble in theory - but not execution.

The rash of 6 'Nightmare' films in 7 years is a fascinating snapshot of the progression of American cinema, with the haunting synth of the first movie replaced by the Goo Goo Dolls in 'Freddy's Dead' (which is arguably even scarier), Freddy's make-up and design subtly changing in each movie, and each director given a brief to make whatever film they like, but Freddy has to be killing someone every 15 minutes.

'Freddy's Dead' is a fascinating cultural artifact as it has a 'Looney Tunes' energy in the opening stretch, a 'Twin Peaks' or 'Northern Exposure' mix of quirky small-town hijinks and the anarchic spirit of a John Waters film.

In one notable sequence, Freddy dispatches of a victim by controlling them in a video game, and yes, the sequence is as stupid as it sounds.

The film is structured as a mystery, with the plot establishing that Freddy has a child and the main dramatic thrust of the film is finding out who the child is.

The film opens with an 'Escape From New York' style narration that Freddy has killed every teen and child in the town of Springwood, turning it into a child-free wasteland.

One memorable scene has Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr make a cameo appearance as a childless couple who have lost their child to Freddy, and in that moment, the series tries to establish pathos, and is a glimpse into 'The Leftovers' style film that could be made about a town where all the children dissapeared.

Later in the film, we are treated to Freddy killing someone by controlling them in a video game.

The 90s were not kind to the slasher as the 80s, as the likes of Tarantino proved that post-modernism was "in" with audiences.

Freddy was a man out of time in the 90s, and the boogeyman of the 80s was reduced to a cultural punchline.

While 'Freddy's Dead' was at least financially successful, the film is the nadir of the franchise.

The comedy element had overshadowed what was once the pioneering hororr franchise, so with the franchise essentially torched, a complete 180 for the next film made sense.

Going Meta

The bizarre hodgepodge of tones in 'Freddy's Dead' is a far cry from the meta-narrative of 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare', which was too confusing for audiences when it was released in 1994.

Last year, 'The Matrix Resurrections' split audiences and critics in half thanks its heavy reliance on meta-narrative, but it's no different to when 'New Nightmare' did it in 1994.

'New Nightmare' was released on the same day as 'Pulp Fiction' in 1994, and is to date, the lowest-grossing film in the 'Nightmare' franchise.

It also happens to be perhaps the best film in the franchise for how wildly original and ambitious it is.

By 1994, New Line Cinema were one of the major players in American cinema, and with Bob Shaye newly minted as one of Hollywood's power players, he was keen to get Craven back onside.

Craven had forged his own career following the success of 'Nightmare', with films like 'Shocker' and 'The People Under The Stairs' serving as his thesis on media violence, and 10 years later, Craven was returning to the franchise that made him a household name.

'Wes Craven's New Nightmare' has more in common with Fellini than Freddy, but considering the previous film in the franchise was a live-action cartoon, a hard turn into high-brow post-modernism further cemented the 'Nightmare' films as the most creative and ambitious of the horror franchises.

The plot of 'New Nightmare' concerns the lines between reality and fiction becoming blurred when strange goings-on start to happen on the set of a new 'Nightmare On Elm Street' film, and original star Heather Langenkamp returns to play herself as she suspects that an evil force - that has manifested itself as Freddy Krueger - is trying to ruin her life.

Freddy jumping off the page into the real world is an ingenious idea for a film, and the implication that evil itself chose him as the physical manifestation for evil on earth is chilling.

Wes Craven himself even appears in the film, giving himself a monologue about how storytelling has been around since the dawn of time, and is an integral part of the human condition.

Wes Craven stepped in front of the camera in 'New Nightmare'

If Lana Wachowski couldn't get audiences on board with 'The Matrix' being a metaphor for how studios view IP in 2021, there was little hope of Wes Craven selling mainstream audiences on his thesis about how horror has existed as long as humans have existed.

Films like 'Birdman', 'Being John Malkovich', and god forbid, 'Deadpool', showed that audiences don't mind when their films deploy meta-narrative, but in the context of the 'Nightmare' series, the addition of high brow to a slasher series was a bridge too far.

However, the willingness to experiment underpins this piece: the 'Nightmare' films may be incredibly inconsistent, but you can't fault them for the effort.

Following the success of the rebooted 'Halloween' trilogy, fans have been anticipating a revival for Mr. Krueger, with Langenkamp stating in a recent interview she would be interested in reprising the role of Nancy.

The 2010 reboot directed by Samuel Bayer (of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' fame) cut the jokes from Freddy altogether and turned one of the most celebrated horror franchises of all time into an episode of 'Law and Order SVU'.

Jackie Earle Haley's spin on Freddy deserves kudos for bringing the physicality back to Freddy and leaning into the menace that is crucial to the character.

In an era dominated by reboots and studio executives cashing in on name recognition, it is only a matter of time before someone pulls the trigger on a new Freddy Krueger film.

Whatever position they may take with a new spin on the 'Nightmare' franchise, it would be following in the grand series tradition of taking wildly ambitious swings.

You can love the 'Nightmare' films or hate them, but you can never accuse them of playing it safe.