“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
In the span of a few minutes, Craven immediately sets the dreamy but hellish tone for A Nightmare on Elm Street, as the opening sequence introduces the hat, the glove, and the whole damn thing. Robert Englund’s maniacal cackle works in concert with Charles Bernstein’s ethereal theme as a mysterious boogeyman stalks Tina Grey (Amanda Wyss) around a boiler room full of hissing pipes and a braying sheep that only makes sense within the confines of the nightmare logic enfolding the entire film.
“This is God.” (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
Tina’s opening nightmare also operates as a bit of misdirection, as her survival implies her status as a protagonist. The following scenes continue to suggest that she will be Freddy’s foil, with her friends there to serve as fodder. Craven goes a little Psycho, however, with the next sequence, which once again features Tina fleeing in terror from her dream-stalker. This time, Freddy chases her through suburbia and reveals himself to be a cruel, hooting trickster with elongated arms and a melting face; once he’s finished toying with her, he guts her during an outrageous special effects sequence that drags her body across her bedroom before it splatters in a visceral heap. Craven reprised this gag to great effect in New Nightmare.
Glen spills his guts (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
Somehow, a sequence where a girl’s eviscerated body defies gravity isn’t the most memorable from the original film. Instead, that honor goes to the crimson geyser that erupts from Glen’s (Johnny Depp) bed and reduces this young kid to an impossible puddle of blood and guts. With this sequence, Craven makes it clear he isn’t interested in just disposing teens—he’s out to completely fucking annihilate them and leave a befuddled trail in his wake. Nothing quite captures this as well as the aftermath here, as Craven lingers on Glen’s weeping parents and his blood leaking through the roof. It’s inexplicable, ghastly, but undeniably inventive all at once.
Jesse’s out of body experience (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, 1985)
Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) spends most of Freddy’s Revenge insisting that something is hiding inside of him, waiting to commandeer his body and soul. His buddy Grady (Robert Rustler) laughs off his freak-outs but quickly discovers these fears are quite literal when Freddy sheds Jesse’s skin like a husk during one of the coolest practical effects sequences ever filmed. Say what you want about this bizarre sequel, but it’s at least committed to delivering more nightmarish images, such as Freddy’s eye peering through Jesse’s mouth (you may have caught a glimpse of a similar effect in Insidious: Chapter 3).
“Freddy’s home” (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987)
With Freddy’s Revenge firmly in the rearview, Dream Warriors harks back more specifically to the original film. In doing so, it also expands upon the formula with bigger, more striking nightmares filled with impressive effects and visuals. Newcomer Kristen Parker’s (Patricia Arquette) first dream confirms this, as she finds herself in the familiar (but dilapidated) house on Elm Street, now renovated into Freddy’s personal nightmare factory.
A mysterious girl on a tricycle beckons her to enter, and the house soon roars to life with the cries of the damned, with Freddy in hot pursuit of his latest victim. Thick puddles of blood slow Kristen’s pace, while a room full of hanged corpses provides a jolt in this dark carnival ride that doesn’t end when she wakes up; instead, she still finds herself in Freddy’s clutches when a sink handle contorts into his familiar razor glove. Here, Dream Warriors announces itself as the true successor to A Nightmare on Elm Street, and it remains the franchise’s finest sequel.
Freddy-snake (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987)
Kristen spends a lot of time frantically wandering through the nightmarish incarnation of 1428, whose attractions also feature a barking pig, among other ghastly sights and sounds. Freddy himself becomes one during an attempt to devour Kristen while taking the form of a giant snake (or something more phallic, if you prefer). One of the first indicators that Freddy has evolved from spectral boogeyman to a monstrous, larger-than-life demon, this scene is a precursor to the effects-laden dream sequences to come.
Sleepwalker (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987)
Case in point: the cruel fate of Phillip (Bradley Gregg), the Westin Hills patient whose penchant for carving puppet figures becomes part of his undoing. Up until this point in the series, Freddy’s murders had been perverse, but this is among the first to feel so personal. It’s not enough for him to prey on Phillip’s vulnerability—he has to take something he loves and twist it into a gruesome demise. Phillip’s tendons become puppet strings as Freddy leads him to his doom at the top of the Westin Hills bell tower, where he dangles precariously as his friends watch on helplessly.
Welcome to Prime Time (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1987)
More dreams become nightmares when Freddy lures would-be Hollywood starlet Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) towards a rec room television. Static and Poltergeist-esque voices emanate from the screen after Freddy hijacks Zsa Zsa Gabor’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show before he bursts forth from the set to introduce Jennifer to her “big break in TV.” By the time he bellows the now infamous “welcome to prime-time, bitch!” quip, he might as well be speaking to himself, as his status as a pop culture icon was soon solidified. From here on out, he would tread the line between villain, anti-hero, and Hollywood megastar. Before the year was out, he was hosting MTV and starring alongside Dokken in music videos, and the films would quickly follow suit by embracing a blockbuster pop approach.
Wet dream (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988)
Depending on one’s disposition towards the franchise’s pop status, The Dream Master is either the height or the nadir of Freddy’s powers (for this writer, it is the former). The strains of Tuesday Knight’s pop anthem “Nightmare” and Englund’s top billing herald this fourth entry, which feels primarily preoccupied with outdoing its predecessors as a vehicle for Freddy’s maniacal revenge. Granted, Joey’s (Rodney Eastman) demise is hardly the most elaborate of the bunch, but it is a signature moment for the Springwood Slasher, who takes the form of the teen’s pin-up girl and erupts from his waterbed ready to deploy an obvious “wet dream” one-liner. A headphone cord yanked from its plug symbolizes the life of the formerly mute (but perpetually horny) kid being snuffed out, a fitting demise for a member of the MTV generation.
“You can check in, but you can’t check out.” (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988)
Freddy would return for four more films following The Dream Master, but he would never top this. In an ingeniously crafted effects sequence courtesy of Screaming Mad George, he turns Debbie’s (Brooke Theiss) fear of insects against her by transforming her into a cockroach. It’s closest we’ll ever come to seeing Cronenberg stroll down Elm Street, as Debbie’s body slowly and agonizingly tears apart, her slimy, amputated limbs shed to reveal the insect features protruding from beneath her skin. To add insult to injury, Freddy traps her in a roach motel and callously crushes her to death to complete his gruesome masterpiece.
Freddy’s Dead (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 1988)
It’s only fair that Freddy himself would eventually die well enough to warrant inclusion on this list. While each film granted him a memorable send-off, nobody “killed” Freddy better than Renny Harlin, whose mantra for show-stopping effects sequences extends all the way to the climax of Dream Master. Wonky logic involving the deadly nature of Freddy’s reflection aside, his demise is another radical exercise in body horror, only this time, he’s on the receiving end. His frame becomes an extravagant site of tortured souls (among them: Linnea Quigley!) longing to escape by tearing away their captor’s already scorched flesh for a rousing, ghoulish finale.
“Stick that in your VCR and suck on it.” (Freddy’s Tricks and Treats, Freddy’s Nightmares, 1988)
Freddy’s fame could not be confined to the silver screen, as he spilled over to the airwaves for a short-lived anthology series. Few of the episodes actually featured Krueger as anything more than a Cryptkeeper-style host, but Freddy’s Tricks and Treats is one of the exceptions. A relatively lucid tale for this series, the Ken Wiederhorn helmed episode nonetheless takes on the tenor of an extended fever dream (this series notoriously nests dreams-within-dreams in a way that would make Inception blush).
Halloween descends on Springwood, where college student Marsha (Mariska Hartigay) is more concerned with studying than she is partying (especially since her dopey boyfriend—clad in a dime store Jason mask—won’t quit bugging her). When a couple of other students (Cameron Thor & Darren Dalton) convince her to participate in their attempts to transfer dreams to VHS tapes, she encounters town legend Freddy Krueger, who subjects her to one nightmarish episode after another Marsha’s overprotective, hellfire-and-brimstone granny, a Silver Shamrock-meets-Onibaba ordeal, reanimated cadavers, Halloween pranks gone awry, a random striptease—Freddy’s deep and kooky bag of tricks makes for one of the finest episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares.
"Bon appétit, bitch.” (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, 1989)
Stephen Hopkins found himself torn between two masters on The Dream Child, the fifth entry in a franchise that had grown ubiquitous by 1989. On the one hand, he admirably attempted to return the series to its darker roots; on the other, audiences expected over-the-top nightmares featuring crown prince Freddy Krueger. Rather than find a happy medium, his film simply has a group of somber characters wandering a gothic landscape and awkwardly bumping into a very lively dream demon prone to making Top Gun references and becoming Super Freddy.
Sandwiched in between these outlandish sequences is a rare moment where Hopkins strikes a proper balance with Freddy’s treatment of Greta (Erika Anderson), a girl whose mother twists her modelling ambitions into a nightmare on her own. In one of his most mean-spirited moments, Freddy preys on Greta’s implied eating disorder (mandated by her mother, no less—and Freddy’s the bad guy?) by gutting her and serving up her own guts until she chokes to death. Though he can’t help but sprinkle in some requisite one-liners, Freddy is at his cruelest here, and you can’t help but cringe at such a nauseating fate. This and other sequences were trimmed in theaters and haven’t reemerged on home video since the film’s unrated VHS release.
“Nice hearin’ from ya, Carlos!” (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, 1991)
Freddy goes full Looney Tunes in The Final Nightmare, going so far as to essentially look into the camera out of exasperation, Wile E. Coyote style. Kids are drawn into video games and Wizard of Oz themed nightmares, with scenes revealing just how far the franchise had come from the hazy nightmare logic of Craven’s original. Even a simple sequence where Freddy stalks hearing-impaired Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan) through a boiler room becomes an over-the-top affair involving ear-leeches and an exploding head. It’s not without its legitimately disturbing moments though, as the scene where Freddy (in the guise of Carlos’s abusive mother—again, who’s the bad guy here?) drives a Q-tip right through his victim’s ears has made me leery of using them myself for over 20 years now.
Freddy goes to hell (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, 1994)
With his return to Elm Street, Craven sought to restore the franchise to its more grounded, terrifying roots, yet he couldn’t ignore the draw of the sequels’ ornate nightmare sequences. But rather than attempt to consistently outdo them throughout, Craven builds to a magnificent climax that transports “Hansel & Gretel” to hell. Within a fiery, baroque underworld, Freddy—now portrayed as an ancient, malevolent demon removed from his depictions in the sequels—hunts Heather Langenkamp and her son (Miko Hughes) as Craven’s vision of a new film begins to bleed into reality. A Nightmare on Elm Street reimagined with the grandeur of Dante’s Inferno, the sequence takes the franchise from suburban nightmares to an even more primal place—it’s the stuff of dark fairy tales take keeps children peeking under their bed during sleepless nights.
Freddy goes to camp (Freddy vs. Jason, 2003)
While this long-awaited crossover is framed as Freddy’s story, it isn’t exactly heavy on nightmare action. It does, however, make its dream sequences count, especially one that takes viewers on an unprecedented tour through the mind of Jason Voorhees. The most memorable stretch is a trip to Crystal Lake that begins with the blown-out photography of a vintage home movie but soon transforms into the delirious recollections of Mrs. Voorhees baby boy. Here reduced to a childlike state, Jason must relive his own bullying and drowning, all while Freddy watches on. It was here—particularly during the transition from burlap-sacked Jason to Freddy donning a Camp Crystal Lake shirt—that Freddy vs. Jason suddenly felt very real after a decade-long wait.