Ranking the ten best from the best in the business
Make yourself precariously comfortable as VHS Revival ventures into the ethereal netherworld of Fred Krueger, one of horror‘s most iconic and enduring characters. Back in 1984, Old Pizza Face revitalised the slasher genre as a razor-fingered child killer with the unprecedented advantage of being able to inhabit one’s dreams, offering fans of the macabre a potentially unlimited canvas of death and destruction in a sub-genre dry on ideas.
Unlike his blank-faced, seek-and-destroy counterparts, Krueger was a different kind of entity, sly and sadistic and concerned more with the thrill of the chase than the act of the kill. Portrayed for almost two decades by the wonderfully perverted Robert Englund, Freddy was a larger-than-life personality of gunslinger exuberance, a character of an ever developing persona who would evolve from a cruel and terrifying child killer into a walking self-parody.
Quite the career — one of dizzying highs and tragic lows — but in spite of the insidious MTV marketing machine that left us all just a little bit weary of the Elm Street formula, one element of the franchise that remained constant was the creativity of its kills, and here VHS Revival ranks the ten best.
10. Mark – A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
Part of me resents having to include this particular kill, and there are a plethora of reasons why. The most pertinent is that this is one of those instances that sums up what the franchise would ultimately be reduced to: a gimmick-laden marketing machine which drained the series of all value.
Incredibly, matters would grow worse before the studio was finally forced to put the original series out of its misery, but by the time The Dream Child was released audiences were already drowning in the mire of Krueger’s hackneyed wisecracks, with only the brilliance of Englund’s portrayal keeping the series afloat. Though commercial juggernaut The Dream Master steered the franchise in the wrong direction creatively, it thrived on a series of spectacular set-pieces, while audiences only had to endure one wisecrack per kill instead of four or five.
Although Mark’s murder was essentially nothing more than an elaborate plug for the comic book series the franchise would almost spawn, at least the movie approached its shameless content-orientated marketing with a modicum of creativity. Sucked into a copy of a ‘Nightmare’ comic courtesy of a Ah-Ha styled pop video sequence, Mark adopts the persona of a gun-slinging superhero in an attempt to end the sleepless woes of the long-oppressed teenage residents of Elm Street.
Unfortunately for Mark, he didn’t count on the emergence of a musclebound ‘Super Freddy’, and he wasn’t alone. Pepped on physical prowess, our pumped-up antagonist quickly turns his victim into a paper cut-out, draining him of all colour and slashing him to ribbons. Gruesome? No. Scary? Not one bit. But visually it was something quite novel, and somewhat impressive for the time of its conception.
9. Carlos – Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
By the time Freddy’s Dead rolled around, Krueger was limping towards a decade of bedtime stalkery, and it was almost a relief to see the words The Final Nightmare tacked onto the title of the sixth entry in the series. Even with the added novelty of a 15 minute 3-D finale — a sign of desperation in any waning franchise — this was the creative nadir of a series consumed by commercial decadence.
The movie consisted of some of the dreariest, most cynical set-pieces in the series, including a Nintendo-orientated death in which Krueger led one of his victim’s to his doom using a joystick, while another gave us an ACME-style Road Runner death with Freddy playing the role of a successful Wile E. Coyote. In hindsight, all of this seems unimaginable for a horror movie franchise, but by 1991 Freddy had already performed his own rap song as parents rushed to department stores in search of pint-sized Krueger pyjamas.
In terms of practical effects, the movie’s saving grace is the murder of Carlos, a deaf kid who Freddy skewers through the ears before attaching a makeshift hearing aid, a seemingly organic contraption which clings to his skull and amplifies sound to a combustible level. This being The Final Nightmare, the set-piece is almost ruined by the screenplay’s jocular antics, but if you can find it in yourself to stomach the sight of our once demonic killer dancing around while running his razor fingers along a blackboard, the image of his victim’s pulsating head and subsequent explosion is worth sticking around for.
8. Shelia – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Light on story and characterisation and generally making little sense whatsoever, The Dream Master took the ingenious formula of its predecessor and deprived it of balance, leaning more towards gimmicky quips and eye-catching set-pieces. But for all the harm it did in regards to the direction of the franchise, the practical effects on display were some of the finest in the series, with the dreamworld formula still very much intact.
After the previous instalment’s surviving characters are disposed of in the opening five minutes, laying waste to part 3’s herculean efforts to rescue the franchise from creative ignominy, our latest paper-thin cast are lined up for the slaughter after the last remaining member of The Dream Warriors, Kristen — who in a classic soap opera switch is no longer played by Patricia Arquette — gives our new protagonist the dubious gift of being able to bring others into her dreams, an ability that proves detrimental to what was Elm Street’s lamest cast to date.
Ripe for the picking is asthmatic super nerd, Shelia. After falling asleep in class, the movie’s protagonist, Alice, can only watch in horror as her friend is dragged into her latest nightmare. Already the action movie equivalent of Roger Moore’s James Bond, substitute teacher Freddy then takes great delight in sucking the air out of his geeky victim in the kind of ironic scene that would soon make a mockery of Wes Craven‘s finest creation. That being said, the sight of Shelia falling to the classroom floor as little more than a bag of skin is quite the creative spectacle, and Krueger still clings to the sadistic remnants that once made his character so unique.
7. Glen – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Back in 1984, Fred Krueger was a very different entity. A sadistic child killer who clung largely to the shadows, he would remain a mystery for much of the original movie’s running time, haunting the periphery of his victims’ subconscious with a devilish glee that made him one of the most terrifying figures in horror movie history.
A far cry from the box fresh ornamentals of future instalments, the original cast of fugue state victims were worthy characters grounded in reality, and their deaths meant something, elevating the original ‘Nightmare’ above the majority of stalk-and-slash fodder. We had a resourceful final girl in series mainstay Heather Langenkamp; a troubled delinquent and his impressionable girlfriend who proved the perfect foils for Krueger’s real world blame game; and then you had naive pretty boy Glen, a Freddy nonbeliever played by an exceedingly young Johnny Depp whose inability to take his predicament seriously puts him firmly in Krueger’s palm.
Glen’s fateful bloodbath is an exercise in grand guignol, and is symbolic of Krueger’s penchant for elaborate displays of vindictive slaughter. Here the lines between dreams and reality are blurred. For the majority of the movie, Krueger disguises acts of sadistic vengeance by playing on the weaknesses of his victims, but here he thrusts his evil upon the community with unabashed grue, sucking Glen into his bed and spitting him out in a ferocious deluge of crimson.
Free from the commercial embellishments of Krueger’s evolving circus, it is still one of the most striking and memorable deaths in the series, speaking more to human resourcefulness than big bucks visuals.
6. Phillip – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
Phillip’s death was a landmark in the Elm Street series as it was the first to truly elaborate on the dream concept, offering us a glimpse at the potential of Craven’s original concept. In 1985, Freddy’s Revenge underwhelmed on just about every level, particularly with its decision to extricate Krueger from the dream world that made his character so unique.
1987‘s The Dream Warriors — considered by some to be the best in the series — worked wonders in salvaging the franchise by expanding on the whole dream concept, and is in many ways as influential as the original movie in allowing Krueger to truly blossom — for better and for worse. It was arguably the infamous ‘puppet death’ which set the ball rolling, with a visual treat that nailed Krueger’s modus for sadistic evil.
After falling asleep at Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital, puppet enthusiast Phillip is awoken by Freddy, who first takes the form of his victim’s favourite puppet, before growing into a life-size entity. Using his claws to strip the veins from Phillip’s arms and feet, Krueger becomes the omnipotent puppeteer to his sleepwalking patient, guiding him through the hospital’s corridors to a ledge where he is thrown a hundred feet to his death.
This particular kill had all the hallmarks of what made the franchise so special: stunning practical effects, Krueger’s character-defining cruelty, and the kind of elaborate death that puts most horror to shame. It also portrays Freddy as a vindictive manipulator who takes great joy in playing on his victim’s fears and plunging them into isolation.
A fine example of the series at its best.
5. Taryn – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
With more kills on our top ten countdown than any other instalment in the ‘Nightmare’ series, The Dream Warriors is arguably the most creative and visually stunning entry in the franchise, and though it lacks the gruelling morbidity of the original, Krueger still maintains the sadistic spark that made him one of the most iconic characters in the history of the genre.
Part of the movie’s charm is the fact that each of Krueger’s victims learns how to take control of their dreams, each acquiring a special power that betrays their real world weakness, giving the previously omnipotent Krueger considerable food for thought. One of those kids is troubled teen Taryn, a recovering drug addict with the kind of trust issues that leaves our killer drooling at the possibilities. Within the boundaries of Freddy’s funhouse she is a completely different entity, however. Sporting a Mohawk and armed to the teeth with knives, she is afraid of no one, and thinks nothing of confronting Krueger head-on.
Unfortunately for her, part 3’s version of Freddy is more than just a smart-mouthed show pony, and in one of the most iconic scenes of the series he does what he does best by getting to the root of her fears and fatefully exploiting them. With fully loaded syringes attached to his fingers, Freddy drives an overdose into the series of hungry needle marks that suddenly appear on Taryn’s arms, ghastly mouth-like holes which beg like puppies suckling at a teat.
This is Krueger at his sadistic worst, a fact that is only heightened by the symbolic sexual ejaculation he exhibits upon penetration. It is moments like this that make him the most vile of all slasher movie villains.
4. Debbie – A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – The Dream Master (1988)
Not the most terrifying of deaths, but in terms of visual ingenuity and practical effects prowess, there are perhaps none better than the infamous cockroach scene, which saw bugphobe Debbie bite the dust with a sense of irony that personifies Krueger at his most sadistically playful. Other deaths in The Dream Master were scrapped or altered due to over expenditure on other set-pieces, but if this particular scene was the reason behind Rick’s ludicrous karate confrontation with an invisible Freddy, it was more than worth it.
After foreshadowing her own fate by squeamishly crushing a cockroach, our fitness fanatic takes part in a typical bench press workout, only to slip into the realms of the subconscious where gentleman Freddy offers his services as a spotter. Of course, his courtesies are all pretence, and soon he is pushing down on his latest victim so hard that her flesh tears at the elbows and cockroach legs replace her floppy, severed limbs. After Debs has metamorphosed into a full-on roach, a now giant Freddy imprisons her in his omnipotent bug trap, squishing her into a syrup of sallow goo.
The Dream Master would signal the beginning of Freddy’s wisecracking overindulgence, but the practical effects were more than worth the price of admission.
3. Jennifer – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
The scene that preempted Freddy as a bona fide global celebrity, Jennifer’s death-by-TV was a kill of particular significance. Punctuated by a delicious wisecrack that lampooned celebrity culture, it was also a quite wonderful exercise in special effects gimmickry, one that set the tone not only for the rest of the movie, but for the rest of the series.
Jennifer is the self-harming type, the kind who struggles to look another human being in the eye. She is also a naive girl who dreams of superstardom ― just the kind of emotional imbalance ‘old pizza face’ thrives on. Krueger would answer his victim’s call in a typically elaborate fashion, taking the form of talk show host Dick Cavett and slashing guest star Zsa Zsa Gabor mid-rant in a merciful act that would spare us from her tiresome opulence.
With the ‘Nightmare’ series once again blurring that tenuous line between dreams and reality, Jennifer then approaches the malfunctioning TV set like a lamb to the slaughter, only for mechanical Freddy claws to materialise and grab her as a mould of our killer’s head protrudes from the device. ‘Welcome to prime time, bitch!’ Krueger growls after spearing her through the screen and leaving her body hanging.
This is the Krueger character at his pinnacle, displaying a winning formula of sadism and humour that would perhaps never be equalled. Still, when the workers of a psychiatric hospital find one of its patients protruding from a television set and fail to ask questions about the peculiar nature of her death, you really have to question their credentials.
2. Grady – A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Freddy’s Revenge was a creative nightmare. Director Jack Sholder attempted something different, but in his efforts managed to ditch Craven’s winning concept for a much more conventional possession story. Still, conflicted protagonist Jesse is probably the most interesting ‘final girl’ bar Heather Langenkamp — not least because he is actually a final boy — and the movie features other glimpses of artistry that stand tall in Krueger’s predominately sub-par canon.
One of those moments was Grady’s death. Granted, the plot developments surrounding it leave much to be desired. Was Jesse simply possessed by Freddy’s spirit, or was Freddy able to somehow wear his victim’s body like a coat? Was Grady dreaming when he saw Freddy shed his friend’s skin, or was Jesse in fact dreaming when he then discovered Krueger’s claw attached to his replenished body?
Whatever the explanation for this subtext-heavy oddity, Grady’s murder is a visual treat of preactical effects mastery. After watching Krueger slash his way out of Jesse’s body in a scene that makes John Hurt’s exploding stomach seem positively primitive, Grady is sliced through the gut and pinned to the door by our monster’s perverted, five-finger implement while his horrified parents play witness to the bloody consequences out in the hallway.
Love Freddy’s Revenge or loathe it, this is one of the most impressive kills in the series at a time when Krueger was still more horror than fun.
1. Tina – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
For the conclusion of our list we go back to where it all began and our ethereal monster’s sadistic origins. I tend to use the word Sadistic a lot when it comes to the murderous perv in the stripey jumper, and Tina’s death, the very first in the series, depicts Freddy the way he was meant to be depicted — the Wes Craven way.
For me, this is the most effective dream sequence in the entire series; not because it is gross or elaborate or pleasing to the eye, but because it incorporates all of those dreamworld elements that make the scene so strangely authentic. I doubt many of us have dreamt of being squished as a giant cockroach, but all of us have dreamt of going in search of something while not being in control of where we wander. We have all experienced dreams in which people randomly appear, in which we accept the ludicrously surreal, such as one person being everywhere at once. It is those netherworld components that Craven would exploit so successfully.
Considering the movie’s minuscule budget, the scene is a technical masterclass, its climax made possible by a specially constructed revolving room that inflicted a fair amount of pain itself. Tina’s death was also highly creative, the surreal machinations of Krueger’s fun house manifesting in visual treats such as Freddy’s long-armed finger scraping. Our killer stays largely in the shadows, but his presence is inescapable.
Tina’s death is also the most gruesome and excruciating in the series. The sight of her stomach being slashed and her body dragged around the room seems to last forever, and the graphic nature of her death inevitably makes a victim out of misunderstood boyfriend Rod, exhibiting our killer’s particular brand of sadism.
It was this masterful formula that made the original A Nightmare on Elm Street such a unique and terrifying experience, the kind of movie that breathed new life into a stale sub-genre that was in danger of extinction. With all the cynical marketing and lazy embellishments that would follow, it is sometimes hard to recall how fresh and ingenious the original conception actually was.
Sometimes I even have to pinch myself, just to make sure I’m not dreaming.