Week 30: “The Magnificent Heather Langenkamp!”
The ‘80s were filled with names of female actors who would one day be labeled “scream queens” but few have had as big an impact as Heather Langenkamp. Considering that the film A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) put her on the map and she starred in two subsequent sequels her resume is pretty empty of any other horror films. She mostly stuck to television series and guest appearances on several famous shows. Keeping with my series surrounding Wes Craven and his films I thought it would be a good idea to explore one of the actors that became an icon due to his films.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was a major role for Langenkamp. It was her first starring role which fortunately gave her a lot of range. She wasn’t just a victim who was quickly dispatched by the killer. Audiences experienced the nightmare through the eyes of her character Nancy Thompson and would get to see a dangerous relationship develop between her and nightmare killer Freddy Krueger (Robert England). As Nancy’s friends are killed one by one she decides to discover the truth about the man who may kill her in her dreams but soon discovers that her parents as well as the other parents in the neighborhood may have had something to do with the murder of Fred Krueger. It’s something she’s lived with her entire life. Despite living in the perfect neighborhood where nothing ever really happens, the truth is deeper and darker. She comes from a broken home; her mother is a drunk and separated from her police father whom she barely speaks to and whom doesn’t understand her. Looks are deceiving.
Nancy has the perfect BFF in Tina (Amanda Wyss) and an understanding boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) and everything is fine until her and her friends all dream of Fred Krueger at the same time. Now one of the great things about this film is the great chemistry with the entire cast and Langenkamp is the leader. She’s able to make all the relationships genuine and believable in a film in which everything becomes unbelievable. Part of buying into the world that Craven crafted is believing all the characters that inhabit it and the entire cast does a great job which is why the film endures to this day. Although it was England who became the household name as the wise talking burned serial killer Freddy Krueger, it was Langenkamp that ushered in a new type of horror film heroine. Her character of Nancy just didn’t scream and run she found the strength and mindset to fight back when she didn’t have any one else to fight for her. She became self-sufficient and strong, something you’d see future horror films emulate.
It would only be a few years later that Langenkamp would return as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987). The events of the original film have had an effect on Nancy who is now a psychologist that specializes in helping teenagers deal with their nightmares. In this film she shows up at a hospital after Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette) has already tried to kill herself because of her nightmares. Kristen is one of a group of teenagers who are all being haunted by Fred Krueger in their nightmares and Nancy is the only one who believes and understands them. In this film Langenkamp gets to play an older and wiser Nancy who gets to use her knowledge to help save others in the same situation that she was once in. Nancy and Krueger have a different relationship as she is the one that beat Krueger so there is personal animosity present that wasn’t there in the previous film; this is the first film in which Krueger would face off against a previous foe. Nancy has an almost kindred spirit connection with Kristen; a very sister like bond that’s not explored by any other characters in subsequent films. This film allows Langenkamp the opportunity to see her character grow and mature and ultimately sacrifice herself. This is a fitting end to one of horror’s most enduring female characters.
This film ultimately became a fan favorite helping to make Langenkamp one of the few heroines to actually gain as much notoriety as Robert England himself. Her popularity and star status would not rise as fast as Jamie Lee Curtis or Linda Blair due to the fact that she did not star in a string of successful horror films throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Elm Street films are generally the only horror films that provided her with a large enough role to actually matter.
Despite not having the opportunity to fully play the iconic character of Nancy Thompson again (death will do that sometimes), she did return to the franchise one final time playing herself in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). This was Craven’s chance to return to the director’s chair to craft a whole new story based on the iconic characters that he created. Langenkamp would be herself, the mother of a young boy who was married to a man who is secretly working on a new Elm Street film with the real Craven. Fact and fiction are about to collide when the nightmare world starts to turn Langenkamp’s life upside down. After the death of her husband, her son starts to experience debilitating nightmares of Freddy Krueger, who has stepped into the real world to ensure that he lives on in the minds of future generations. Craven melds the real life world with the world of film and the fandom created by the Elm Street series and Freddy Krueger himself. Nancy Thompson has grown up and become a mother and a storyteller instilling in her child the fantasy that the world of film is nothing more than a fairytale to be passed down from generation to generation.
Langenkamp (the real person) has the opportunity to play her most complicated character and she does so effortlessly. In a career character spanning three films she’s been able to accomplish something that very few actors get the opportunity to do. This has not only made her one of the great heroines in horror film history but allowed the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise to live with its own legacy despite the mediocre sequels that have come and gone before and after.
The reason why Langenkamp had such an impact on me growing up is because with these three films the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was at its strongest. No other horror franchise had an internal trilogy that mattered this much (although some would argue Jamie Lee Curtis’ three film Halloween trilogy comes close excluding that abysmal Resurrection film)). I continued to watch these films sans the rest (as I’m sure many fans have done as well). Langenkamp has always had that next door neighbor “every girl” quality that endured her to fans.
Her only other major impact would’ve been the television series Just the Ten of Us (1988-90) which gave her, her longest role. Some may remember her as Nancy Kerrigan in the TV movie Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story (1994), which I only saw when it was originally released. She also had a part in the cult film The Demolitionist (1995) but most of the rest of her roles have been small. She has yet to be given another amazing opportunity of a Nancy Thompson but that doesn’t matter since that is the character that she will always be remembered for and we fans will be thankful for.