Ranking the vile exploits of one of horror’s most enigmatic figures
As a character, Fred Kruger has always been the stuff of nightmares, but the reasons for making us scream would range from innovative exploits in horror filmmaking to horrific acts of marketing. For many, Robert Englund’s ‘bastard son of 100 maniacs’ was one of the most memorable and enigmatic figures of the 1980s; for others he was a short-lived obsession as Freddy fever took the commercial lion by the balls and squeezed until they had us purring like kittens. Krueger went from sadistic child killer to stand-up comedian in a series that lasted a decade, dividing fans into two main types: those who preferred the character’s distinctly evil incarnation and those who got their kicks out of his micromanaged horseplay and fantasy-led practical effects, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a person on the planet who hasn’t heard of Fred Krueger, whatever their opinion of the character.
In this article, VHS Revival ranks one of the most peculiar horror franchises of the 20th century.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
Some of you are perhaps wondering why Freddy’s Dead isn’t rock bottom on this list. Admittedly, that instalment was guilty of exacerbating its predecessor’s flaws on just about every conceivable level, diluting things further while spreading the commercialism on thicker, but by that point there was no turning back; the series had been tarnished irrevocably, and it was 1989‘s A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child that should be held responsible.
A year earlier, the series had hit its commercial zenith with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, putting Krueger on the kind of mainstream plateau rarely glimpsed in the horror genre — at least back in 1988 — but like all money-oriented trends the bubble was growing too vast and distorted to maintain, and the inevitable pop would turn our eyes red with disbelief. The movie also boasts the lowest kill count of the franchise with a record-equalling three victims, an indictment of a series which had descended into little more than a platform for practical effects set-pieces. Instead we are treated to a kind of Gothic fantasy, but one so illogical it makes Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin seem insightful. All that’s missing is the canned laughter.
The cast seem almost peripheral. I know this is the case with most slashers, but there is peripheral and there is almost nonexistent, and this movie is about as far away from being a slasher as one could strain to imagine. In fact, I struggle to recall a single character in any kind of detail bar the returning Alice (Lisa Wilcox) and poor old Robert Englund, who by this point was surely just in it for the money, and who could blame him?
The Dream Child does irreparable damage to a character who once breathed new life into the slasher sub-genre. Gone are the gunslinger stance and sadistic cackle, replaced instead by a walking Christmas cracker packed with cheapskate jokes that would leave an infant yawning from overexposure. On the subject of Batman and Robin, it even throws in a Krueger variation known as “Super Freddy”, a shameless plug for Innovation Publishing’s short-lived comic series, which would lead the company to bankruptcy by 1992.
The movie’s premise is just ridiculous: Krueger attempts to possess Alice’s unborn child with the intention of being born back into the real world, where his powers and dreamworld dominance will no longer exist. If his only goal is to kill children, why not remain exactly where he is, a realm where he is above the law and seemingly immortal? The movie also makes the mistake of trying to provide a humanising backstory for the kind of supernatural entity that suffers for it. We even see Robert Englund unmasked, a mystique-crushing move that all but killed the character’s supernatural pull.
In the end, it’s difficult to understand exactly who this movie is for. Krueger was already a pop culture phenomenon with kids who had somehow come to idolise the movie’s child slayer, and though the movie was rated R and various anti-violence groups had made their presence felt, it’s apparent by the movie’s fantastical tone and ruthless merchandising that it was partially made with a younger demographic in mind, even if it did give us a backstory explaining Krueger’s birth as the result of the gang rape of a nun in a mental asylum. I mean, really?!
Ultimately, The Dream Child turns us into passive consumers motivated by manufactured buzz, and we watch events unfold like an aimless granny knitting Freddy onesies for a newborn. Sure, it distracts us from time-to-time, catches us off guard with its haphazard formula, but subliminally we’re tuned-in, unconsciously weaving our support for a shameless brand with a faltering sense of identity.
6. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
By the end of the sixth instalment of the infamous A Nightmare On Elm Street series, Freddy was dead, and not just because of a typically misleading title. In many ways, New Line Cinema’s fifth Krueger-led sequel is the very worst of the bunch, though those of you who prefer Robert Englund’s sillier portrayal — and I know you’re out there — may see things rather differently.
By the time of its release in 1991, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare had been reduced to a micromanaged farce of shameless and horror-defying commercialism. Krueger had gone from gleefully sadistic to second-rate stand-up act in the seven years since we were introduced to a barely-glimpsed evil haunting the periphery of Tina Gray’s grungy boiler room nightmare. Back then he was all mystery. Who was this unseen menace and what were his intentions? Would we ever catch a glimpse of this monster’s vaguely glimpsed visage?
We certainly would. In fact, by the time of Freddy’s Dead‘s release we had been subjected to so much of make-up artist David Miller’s pizza-inspired kisser that you weren’t really watching a horror movie at all, though the character’s descent into pop culture mouthpiece was somewhat disturbing. Englund’s most iconic creation had been transformed into a cynical novelty, put on display like a dutiful sideshow freak going through the motions for an audience who had long been desensitised. Not only was this the cheapest and most transparently throwaway of the series, it belonged to the early ’90s, a time when horror’s stock had plummeted to its lowest level in decades.
Like The Dream Child before it, Freddy’s Dead is a fantasy-driven platform for a series of practical effects set-pieces that lack the visual ingenuity of previous instalments, though never have they been more flamboyant. Among the movie’s slapstick crime’s are a hyper-referential approach that would lampoon the likes of The Wizard of Oz with the puerile abandonment of the weakest Frank Drebin gags, Freddy even taking to a push broom in the guise of a wicked witch in what is essentially a drag act.
The movie would also turn cinema’s most infamous child killer into Wile E. Coyote for a Road Runner inspired kill involving an air balloon and a bed of nails, but even worse was the sight of Krueger adorning a Nintendo-style power glove to commit the ultimate in horror buffoonery: death by video game. If all of that wasn’t enough to cheapen Freddy’s ostensible send-off, New Line even turned to the always desperate 3-D gimmick to fool punters into one last splurge, deeming us worthy of only 15 minutes of through-the-screen action. Oh, and there are celebrity cameos — lots of them. Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, anyone?
No, didn’t think so.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
When it comes to the rose-tinted lens of horror nostalgia, The Dream Master inhabits the candy cotton clouds. So anticipated was New Line’s third sequel that it became the most successful in the series until the release of Freddy vs Jason more than a decade later. Ironically, it was Friday the 13th producers Paramount Pictures who first approached them with the idea of a franchise crossover in 1987, though Jason’s waning stock didn’t appeal to the decision makers over at New Line Cinema — at least for the time being — leading Paramount to faux Carrie crossover Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.
For many Freddy fanatics growing up in the late-80s, The Dream Master is the first movie that comes to mind, and it’s easy to see why. For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s difficult to convey just how popular Robert Englund’s once-terrifying child killer had become — particularly with younger movie fans. In 1988, Krueger was everywhere: on posters, on commercials, on talks shows; he even starred in his very own pop video for the painfully corporate rap song “Are You Ready For Freddy?” by the Fat Boys. You couldn’t turn around without seeing pop culture’s flavour of the month partaking in some kind of commercial tomfoolery.
Having said that, The Dream Master is a marked improvement on those instalments so far included, and as a pop culture phenomenon there is no denying its impact. It also features some of the best practical effects set-pieces in the series — particularly a death sequence in which one unlucky victim is transformed into a cockroach, a spectacle that proved so expensive other deaths had to be reevaluated as a cost-cutting measure (this was the reason why Rick would test his karate skills against an invisible Freddy in a quite ludicrous scene). The movie was also directed by Die Hard 2‘s Renny Harlin, so there’s no lack of technical flair, but as a horror flick it barely fails to qualify.
Still, there is much to denounce about the fourth instalment in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. For one thing, it is the first movie to feature a paper-thin cast who are almost surplus to requirements. It also eschewed the kind of perverse horror that had been central to the franchise for elaborate set-design and general buffoonery, embracing Freddy’s transition from sadistic monster to fast-lipped antihero and merchandise machine. The movie was more concerned with commercial tie-ins and pop culture promotion than appealing to horror fans, and though it would launch the character to a mainstream stratosphere New Line founder Robert Shaye could never have dreamed of back in 1984, it sacrificed sure-footing for a killing stroke.
For many, The Dream Master is the pinnacle of the A Nightmare On Elm Street series, a fact there is simply no denying in a monetary sense, but as visually mesmerising as it often is, the movie led the series along a path from which it would never recover. The franchise may have ventured further into the creative quagmire, but this was when the rot truly set in.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Freddy’s Revenge is the most divisive instalment of the series, so it seems only fair that the movie should land right in the middle of this ranking. Personally, I have something of a love/hate relationship with a movie which has garnered quite the cult following, not least because of the adverse effect it had on the fledgling career of the film’s lead, Mark Patton, who would seek closure in 2019’s low-key documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. Every time I watch Freddy’s Revenge I leave somewhat disappointed, yet every year I find myself reaching for it once more with a renewed hope that it is much better than I give it credit for.
One thing you can’t deny about Freddy’s Revenge is its sense of intrigue. This is an anomalous franchise entry if ever there was one, but despite its silliness and inability to successfully tap into Craven’s dreamworld concept, it is never less than a fascinating curio, with a strong protagonist and a Krueger variation who has never looked scarier. Freddy almost looks feral in this one, rabid, like a nicotine addicted bloodhound on an insane rampage. In fact, it is arguably the last time the character was truly terrifying.
There are other positives to be found in Freddy’s Revenge. First and foremost there is the film’s protagonist, Jesse, a hugely conflicted ‘final boy’ struggling with his own identity. Much has been made of the apparent gay subtext in Freddy’s Revenge, and it makes for the kind of inner conflict that Krueger thrives on as he once again sets about returning to the real world (will he ever learn?). There are also some stand-out moments that prove truly creepy. An opening nightmare sequence involving a school bus captures Krueger’s omnipotent evil beautifully, as does an effectively lit poolside massacre, and Grady’s death, one that sees Krueger shed Jesse’s corpse like a silk gown, is one of the absolute best in the series. Also, a special shout-out to Robert Rustler as doomed confidant, Grady. That guy was infinitely watchable in everything he starred in.
Unfortunately, there are also some rather dubious decisions that make Freddy’s Revenge something of a misfire. First and foremost is director Jack Sholder’s decision to ditch the dreamworld concept for what is essentially a straight-up possession story. Two, where on Earth is Charles Bernstein’s gut-wrenching original theme? Hellraiser‘s Christopher Young gives us a typically inspired alternative, but Bernstein’s scathing lullaby defines Freddy so well; it’s a fundamental part of the character’s identity. They even considered ditching actor Robert Englund for a cheaper alternative until a few takes told them everything they needed to know about his importance to the character.
Beyond those omissions, there are also numerous plot holes, exploding budgies and demonic Rottweilers with not just human faces, but infant human faces. In fact, as a whole the movie is something of a shambles. In the end, it’s hard to criticise Sholder for trying something new, even if it wasn’t really necessary. Something of a hodgepodge, but never less then fascinating — for better and for worse.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
For many, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors is the absolute pinnacle of the series, and it’s easy to see why. After the middling indecisiveness of Freddy’s Revenge, something was needed to revive a series that was at risk of slipping into slasher mediocrity, and after Wes Craven’s (apparently much darker) screenplay was subjected to heavy redrafts by director Chuck Russell and long-time collaborator Bruce Wagner, something magic happened.
Many feel that The Dream Warriors steered Krueger away from the darkness toward the realms of mystique-quashing celebrity, and there is no doubt that the third instalment set the franchise on a path to commercial glory and everything — good and bad — that such monumental success brought with it, but as a mediator that melds fans of Freddy’s evil and comic sides respectively, The Dream Warriors gets the balance just right, resulting in a comic book wonder that reestablishes Craven’s original concept and expands on it tenfold, giving us an open canvas of dreamworld delights where anything and everything seems possible.
The movie is set in a psychiatric ward for kids who all seem to be having trouble sleeping for some reason, and when original final girl Heather Langenkamp returns to the fray as a doctor who naturally specialises in sleep deprivation, Freddy can no longer run the rule over a ward of insecure teens who tick all the right boxes as potential prey: young, disillusioned and consistently patronised for their wild claims of some barely-glimpsed boogeyman. This leads to a quite incredible series of practical effects and absurd one-liners that would soon define horror’s biggest degenerate. Welcome to prime time, bitch!
In a sense, The Dream Warriors began the rot by exploring commercial avenues that would one day exploit the series to within an inch of its life, and though it may prove a little too fantasy-driven for fans of the character’s darker side, the third instalment gives us the best of both worlds and is the reason behind the character’s mainstream apotheosis. Ultimately, The Dream Warriors both redesigns and rediscovers, which is the most anyone can ask for in a sequel.
The majority of fans will be looking to lynch me for not placing this particular instalment higher. There is something about a group of outcasts banding together to take on a singular evil whose typical modus is to divide and conquer, particularly when they come into possession of special powers that belie their real-world weakness, but in the end it comes down to personal taste. When The Dream Warriors is dark, it is truly dark, but sometimes it all gets just a little too splash panel for my liking. I’m sure many of you will disagree.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
A decade after the release of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven was fighting to salvage the integrity of his most iconic creation. The filmmaker has to shoulder some of the responsibility for standing by and idly letting it happen, but in the end the character transcended his control, and big business tends to take on a life of its own.
At the time of its release, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare would slip under the commercial radar somewhat, becoming by far the least successful movie in the series. The film was a fresh and unorthodox meta experiment that would prove the blueprint for Craven’s 1996 smash Scream, but audiences — especially those weaned on a diet of Krueger’s sillier period — were distinctly unprepared for its unique perspective and as a result didn’t really care for it. As a young Freddy fanatic who was 12 at the time of the movie’s release, I, for one, can attest to that.
But New Nightmare has aged incredibly well and is yet another testament to the visionary qualities of Wes Craven, who would return to direct his most famous creation for the first time since the original. After Krueger had been fed through the merchandise wringer and put out to dry, it would take something monumental to salvage the character, but nobody was expecting anything quite like this. Much like Scream, New Nightmare is a movie within a movie, one so literal that the once imaginary Krueger crosses over into reality to haunt members of the original cast as Craven pens his latest ‘sequel’, one that begins to spell out the fate of its stars before they’ve even signed up for the project.
Watching New Nightmare, it quickly becomes apparent just how important Craven is the integrity of the character. The antithesis of the haphazard instalments that inspired it, the director is in total control, once again blurring the lines between dreams and reality with an expertise that is positively spellbinding. There are so many parallels and cute nods between the ‘reality’ of New Nightmare and the fictional world of Fred Krueger that before long it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, and by the time the character crosses over into the realms of reality he has reclaimed a terrifying aura long-since buried. The way in which Craven delivers such a concept is nothing short of a revelation.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare has proven rather divisive among fans of the series, and though it admittedly loses its way during it climactic battle, Krueger was finally back in the hands of his creator, and it’s an absolute scream.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It all began in a grungy boiler room where a barely glimpsed evil lurked. Slashers had reached something of a creative nadir by the mid part of the 1980s, and Charles Bernstein’s scathing lullaby told us that something rather unique was about to unfold. It’s incredible that Craven’s dreamworld concept had not been dreamed-up prior to 1984, but like all the best ideas they seem so obvious once they have been unleashed. This was grungy, prodigious filmmaking, the kind that would transform New Line Cinema from a struggling independent production company into a mainstream giant that would one day produce the colossal Lord of the Rings series. It comes as no surprise that New Line were once dubbed, “the house that Freddy built.”
So many things set the movie apart other than its inspirational concept. Craven gave us so much more than your standard stalk-and-slash with his scholastic attention to the subconscious and ability to tap into the human condition. The problem with many ‘Nightmare’ instalments is that they never really feel like a dream in a manner that we can relate to. That wasn’t the case with the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven’s visual trickery plunging us into an ethereal realm of mind-bending uncertainty.
The characters Craven creates are also a cut above. Each of the Elm Street kids have conflict beyond the context of their peril and can all be easily identified with. When Jason’s latest victim wanders senselessly into the darkened woods and begins tripping over, we perceive that character as stupid and look upon them with knowing derision. With A Nightmare on Elm Street it is different. The characters are drawn to their demise not by stupidity or contrivance, but by a universal weakness we can all relate to.
Then there’s Krueger himself. On the surface, he may have been just another marquee attraction in the Michael Myers mode, but there was something distinctly unique about him. He wasn’t the kind of barbarian who would dispose of you with one brutish blow. For him the thrill was in the chase. The act itself was merely the ejaculation. Of course, you need more than an idea to bring it all to life, and just as important to the Krueger character is the man who portrays him. Jason Voorhees has been continuously recast to varying degrees of success, but try separating Englund and Freddy at your peril. The actor lives and breathes the character. Without him, there is no Krueger.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street would be written off in many quarters, lost in the creative void of slasher excess and lumped in with a plethora of like-for-like killers. So underappreciated was the movie that legendary film critic Roger Ebert didn’t even feel it worthy of review. His loss, I say. Not only is A Nightmare on Elm Street one of the finest horror movies of its era, it is one of the most unique and memorable ever committed to celluloid. Period. It may have flaws relating to a sequel-setting jump scare that went against Craven’s original intentions, but rarely has horror been so innovative and refreshing.
How many other characters can claim to have built a Hollywood production company almost single-handed? How many fictional child killers have transcended the realms of horror to become an unlikely hero to kids the world over? That’s the universal appeal of one of the most iconic figures the genre has ever known, and whether you like your Krueger tongue-in-cheek or of the darker persuasion, and even if you don’t care for him very much at all, you all know exactly who he is and where he came from. And, as always, sleep is just around the corner.
Sweet dreams, bitches!