Master of horror Wes Craven was obviously well-known for creating the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, but the man explored the nature of nightmares in more than just his Freddy Krueger films. Throughout his career, one of his favorite ways to explore the psychology of a character was to throw them into their worst fear and create some sublimely phantasmagorical dream imagery around it. In honor of his favorite theme, this list will explore Craven’s top 10 nightmare sequences. Some entries might just be a little surprising.
#10 Revenge Dentistry in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
I can’t find a video link for this one, but it’s for the best. Wes Craven’s grim, gritty debut film is chock full of violent, grotesque scenes and this is one of the worst of a very robust crop. Even though it doesn’t actually show gore, it gets so close it makes your skin crawl. When one of the villainous Krug’s cronies falls asleep, he dreams that the couple who has taken them in are preparing to remove his front teeth with a hammer and chisel. Make sure not to watch this if you have a dentist appointment within the next week or so.
#9 Vase Stab in DEADLY FRIEND
DEADLY FRIEND gets a lot of flak from horror fans for its abrupt tonal shifts (Craven wanted to make a teen movie and the studios wanted an R-rated horror flick, and the result is… uneven), but the horror scenes are nothing to thumb your nose at. In this nightmare, Kristy Swanson is confronted by her abusive father. It seems like it could be real at first, but the scene reaches a shrieking crescendo of violence that’s both a little bit silly and a lot bit terrifying.
#8 The Freeway in NEW NIGHTMARE
OK, maybe the effects haven’t aged so well on this 1994 ELM STREET sequel, about Freddy coming after actress Heather Langenkamp in real life. But this scene – in which the adorable Miko Hughes attempts to cross a busy California freeway while being menaced by Freddy – is an adrenaline-pumping bit of peril with tight editing that emphasizes the sheer weight and speed of the cars rushing by.
#7 Horace Pinker Telepathy in SHOCKER
SHOCKER is another unfairly maligned entry in the Wes Craven canon. Although the second half is a goofy effects spectacle, the first 45 minutes are a brutal slasher with some elegantly spooky nightmare imagery as Peter Berg unwittingly uses his dream-connection to the serial killer Horace Pinker to witness his latest murders. When he crosses the line between reality and dreams, Craven pulls a lot of impressive DREAM WARRIORS effects trickery.
#6 Tina’s Death in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Freddy Krueger’s very first kill is a damn memorable one. Although his in-dream menacing would certainly improve (the stretchy arms are a fun, uncanny effect, but not the most impressive), the kill itself is a visceral, beautiful moment that captures a sense of wonder while still maintaining its brute power.
#5 Freddy’s Furnace in NEW NIGHTMARE
The Hansel and Gretel theme of NEW NIGHTMARE comes to a head when our heroes arrive in Freddy’s newly tricked-out boiler room. Young Miko Hughes is small enough to slip behind the bars of an iron furnace, but he doesn’t anticipate that Freddy will be able to grotesquely stretch his face through the bars to swallow him whole. It’s a fun, uncanny effect that really sticks with you.
#4 Bed Head in DEADLY FRIEND
I really regret not being able to find a clip for this second DEADLY FRIEND nightmare, which predicts both PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and THE GRUDGE with a spot of bedtime horror. A mysterious lump appears at the foot of the main character’s bed, crawling toward him with eerie speed. He lifts the sheets to discover a charred corpse has burst from his mattress. It’s an undeniably effective moment that would be more respected if it didn’t share a film with a talking robot.
#3 Sharon Stone Eats a Spider in DEADLY BLESSING
This early Wes Craven effort is an underseen religious slasher featuring a performance from Sharon Stone in her first speaking role. It’s also her first role where a giant spider falls into her mouth, and in all likelihood her last. This scene starts off as an ethereal, vaguely threatening dreamscape before it drops an anvil of pure terror right on your face.
#2 The Tub in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
This scene is iconic for a reason. Nancy is in an incredibly vulnerable position twice over. She’s both nude and asleep, two of the times we feel most unprotected. Freddy’s attack in the tub is a violation of everything safe and wholesome about suburbia, as well as an incredible effect when she’s dragged into the massive pool of water beneath the lit rectangle of her tub, getting farther and farther away.
#1 Buried Alive in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW
In terms of filmmaking, this scene might just be Wes Craven’s nightmare magnum opus. I’m especially partial to the moment that a door becomes the lid of a coffin as the camera spins and wood panels spring out around Bill Pullman. He’s completely helpless as the nightmare pushes him through a whirl of his worst fears. This scene is both terrifying and utterly impressive as a feat of visual invention.