The greatest slasher movie franchise: Round 5

Having triumphed in the first, second, third, and fourth rounds, two franchises remain. Here, in the finals, the madman stalker of the ’70s takes on the quipping, deformed nightmare terrorizer of the ’80s. Who will take it home: the killer who never says a word, or the one who never shuts up? Keep reading to see which of these long-running series we name the winner of our Ultimate Slasher Franchise Tournament. And then scroll past those results to the readers poll, where you, the fans, have a chance to name a different winner.


Maybe it was always going to come down to these two. The unholy monsters of suburbia. The leading bogeymen of the box office. America’s favorite unkillable killers. One basically kicked off the whole slasher-movie craze of the ’80s—his was the blank, rubber William Shatner face that launched a thousand ships through a thousand bays of blood. The other arrived right when the subgenre was beginning to peter out, extending its life by introducing a different kind of homicidal villain: smaller frame, bigger mouth, powers his masked contemporaries couldn’t, uh, dream of.

With apologies to Jason Voorhees, whose series got knocked out of this tournament a couple rounds back, Michael Myers is the true strong and silent yin to Freddy Krueger’s yang. Mike is death personified. He just keeps coming and killing, a Duracell battery of malevolence. He has no pretensions, just unquenchable bloodlust. Freddy is his opposite number, the McEnroe to his Borg, the demonic clown to his pokerfaced straight man. He’s the rock star, the showman. He’ll make a whole production out of ripping out your insides. The two could be a classic comedy duo, a study in contrasts.

Their franchises, both spawned by all-time-classic originals from the respective minds of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, aren’t so different. At their worst, they follow standard slasher protocol, feeling like body counts in search of movies. They have hummable, instantly placeable main themes built on a simple repetition of notes—lullabies to traumatize. On a deeper level, both link their evil to the festering psychic underbelly of American small-town life, and to the mistakes of parents either absent or lawlessly vengeful. “There’s an Elm Street in every town,” Freddy croaks in the worst of his Nightmares, the falsely “final” one. Could that include sleepy Haddonfield?

Only Scream, Wes Craven’s other enduring slasher series, can boast a heroine with a longer life expectancy than those of Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has come and gone, died and been brought back nearly as many times as her relentless stalker—she truly embodies Carol J. Clover’s theory that the Final Girl, not the killer, is our true point of identification in these movies. It’s only slightly less frequently that Elm Street has redrafted its own original scream queen, Nancy; she’s at the center of that franchise’s two most beloved entries—or three, if you count New Nightmare, which cast star Heather Langenkamp as herself.

Of course, neither of these series has been immune to the dangers of overexposure—the way a monster can become less scary the more we see him. This is one place where Michael has the edge. His stark simplicity as an icon—he’s practically a silhouette of evil, a sentient mask and knife—has vacuum-sealed his fearsomeness. The Halloween movies may get dumber along the way, and they certainly grow repetitive, but The Shape remains effectively scary in his single-minded deadliness. He’s the Coca-Cola Classic of modern screen terrors, unimprovable, always in vogue.

Freddy, on the other hand, is more like a hardcore band that lost its edge when it reached for the big-label big leagues. It’s conventional wisdom at this point that the Elm Street sequels zapped his power by turning him into a jokey court jester: The mass-murdering specter as hacky vaudeville comedian, tossing out one-liners so bad even Arnold would veto them on the set of a contemporaneous action vehicle. Freddy might be even more of a household name than Michael, but at what cost? His arc from shadowy menace into poster boy anti-hero of ’80s excess does him no favors here.

Yet undead Fred has other tricks up his striped angora sleeve. Halloween won the last round by virtue of relative variety—for the way the series has kept itself alive through offbeat execution and tweaks to its rather rigid formula of executions. But those movies look like interchangeable reruns compared to the built-in malleability of Elm Street.

Once derided for deviating too far from the original’s premise (by allowing Freddy to slaughter out of dreamland), the second Nightmare now looks like a provocative, interesting detour; while no one involved seems able to agree on how intentional the homoerotic subtext is, the fact remains that part two of the franchise has become a cornerstone of any queer-studies horror-movie curriculum. Part three, meanwhile, did what a Hollywood sequel ideally should, expanding the bedrock premise—look out, Freddy, here come the Dream Warriors—without sacrificing its appeal. Later, in New Nightmare, Craven used the framework of the franchise to meditate on the whole horror genre, with a film that plays today like a less sardonic dry run to his Scream. And let’s not discount the dumb fun of Freddy Vs. Jason, a toy-store collision that was pure hooting-and-hollering, pick-a-side bliss in theaters.

The remakes pose a more difficult challenge of evaluation. Fans aren’t particularly high on either. Objectively speaking, Rob Zombie’s extremely violent Halloween has to be seen as the more widely respected of the two. Say what you want about Zombie’s sensibilities, but he has a vision. And his experiment in expanding (and carnival-barker flavoring) the Myers backstory spawned a sequel that’s actually among the more visually striking entries in the dozen-movies-deep Halloween run. The Platinum Dunes Elm Street remake, by contrast, is roundly reviled by Freddy’s army of loyalists, partially for having the gall to put someone other than Robert Englund in the sweater, hat, and glove. But it’s a more interesting movie than the howling detractors have made it out to be. At least this writer thinks so.

Most slasher movies are rigorously simple in design and appeal: Introduce teens, knock them off, repeat. Michael Myers keeps things simpler than most. He may vary the weapon of choice, reaching for the occasional scythe or pitchfork or broken electrical tube, but his approach remains straightforward. Just how many times can we watch the guy stab, strangle, or bludgeon someone to death before growing numb to the effect?

Where Nightmare pulls ahead is in the sheer versatility and cracked imagination of its conceit. Elm Street is a landscape of the unconscious, and while no film in the series has quite tapped into the full possibilities of dream logic (in the way, say, David Lynch has), even the worst get some surrealistic imagery out of envisioning the architecture of a slumbering mind. Every set piece is an invitation to a foggy fantasy world; you won’t see this kind of pop-art psychedelia on the streets of Haddonfield.

What’s more, the Elm Street movies turn the most fundamental building block of the slasher movie—the kill scene—into a haunted playground for their filmmakers. It’s why even the jokiest sequels are worth watching: You’re guaranteed at least one inspired bit of high-concept gross-out lunacy, like a teen girl stuffed with food until she basically explodes. The effects in these movies, especially the ones made in the ’80s golden age of practical prosthetic work, are often eye-poppingly grand. Before he did the all-time revolting spectacle of Society, VFX maverick Screaming Mad George turned one unfortunate teen into a marionette operated by his own distended veins, and another into an oversized bug squished by Freddy in a roach motel.

However far it strayed from the dread of the original, however shaky the sequels got in the middle, Elm Street remained a franchise of high Grand Guignol style, with more graphic (in multiple definitions of the word) inspiration than the rudimentary killing sprees this moviemaking trend usually allows. The Halloween series, for all its enduring popularity, better-than-average performances, and periodic bumps in quality, just can’t compete in that arena. It’s workmanlike by comparison.

Look, the first Halloween has a primal power none of the slashers that followed can match. It’s a better movie than the first Elm Street. But this isn’t a contest between part ones. It’s a battle between the series they birthed. And pound for pound of flesh, kill for kill, entry for entry, what Craven conjured outpaces what Carpenter did. And so the subgenre, and the soul of America’s petrified, transgressing youth, belongs to Freddy.

Winner: A Nightmare On Elm Street


READERS POLL

But wait! There’s still time to name a different winner. Last round, the fans followed our lead—or maybe proved that we were always following theirs—by sending the same two slashers to the finals. We’ve put our tournament to rest. But it’s you who gets to decide how this parallel one ends. In other words: Grab your sharpest knives, Halloween fans, and vote below (or here).

https://www.avclub.com/is-halloween-or-a-nightmare-on-elm-street-the-greatest-1847956758

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