One of the horror-film genre's most iconic heroines, Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy Thompson in the Nightmare on Elm Street series) kicked Freddy Kreuger's ass not once, but three times.
We spoke with the actor, who is in town for Denver Film Society's The Watching Hour: An Evening With Heather Langenkamp. The DFS will screen the documentary I Am Nancy (which Langenkamp produced) at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 23, at the Denver FilmCenter, followed by an audience Q&A with the scream queen herself.
Westword: You're in Denver promoting I Am Nancy, which you produced. Can you tell us about the documentary?
Heather Langenkamp: I wanted to make a documentary for a very long time about Nancy Thompson, the character I played in Nightmare on Elm Street. She doesn't have a lot of marketing, toys, or a sweater, like Freddy. She's always been kind of this second-class citizen in the franchise. Why is that? Why are heroes not celebrated the same way that monsters are in our modern age in these stories?
So, I set out as cameraman, and we took a lot of video at horror conventions: 150-200 hours of video, six different cities. It added up to a lot of material. We heard the most incredible things about my character, Nancy, what the movie meant to these people, and how fans identify with Nancy in their own struggles and in their own lives.
We topped it off with a really great interview with [director] Wes Craven and Robert Englund [Freddy]. We asked a lot of questions that people haven't heard before. You hear a lot about how Wes really is and what kind of movie he really wanted to make. You get a really different perspective. You'd never think that he's actually a really funny, nice guy.
What is it that's kept you and your fans fascinated with the Nightmare on Elm Street series and your character, Nancy Thompson, for over 25 years?
I think the film is a work of art. Wes Craven created something that was so pure, and really universal in the way he dealt with fear and with the innocent children who have to face it. We have this world that we live in. It's hard for kids and teenagers to navigate. Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the first movies that really talked about that. The '80s were the first time you really saw teenagers in film in that kind of way. The movie entertained teenagers across the world, and it still resonates with them as adults.
What was it like playing yourself in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, as opposed to playing Nancy?
I wanted to bring Nancy's same fighting quality, persistence against evil and the way she faces her fear head-on - -all of those Nancy Thompson qualities. I didn't try to play myself as much as I tried to make myself blend with the Nancy Thompson character. My favorite parts of the movie are where the lines between myself and Nancy are really blurred -- when I go into Hell and have those famous fights with Freddy. In terms of the parts of the movie that I like best, it's when I'm actually re-creating the Nancy role.
As one of the most iconic "final girls" in cinema, what are your thoughts on the final-girl trope?
I think it's a construct of the '80s and '90s. I kind of feel like we're beyond it already. I don't 100% buy into it. Because you can deconstruct horror now so much, it's become a tool of people like Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, who are making horror movies for the next generation and analyzing horror for their own benefit. Sexuality is a very important part of horror, but by focusing on the final-girl aspect of horror in the last 25 years, sexual messages are being lost or swept under the carpet. The idea that the virgin is the one who lasts the longest against the monster or lives to see the end is skipping over a lot of the stronger messages in horror.
What are some of those stronger messages?
The strongest message is that when you're a teenager contemplating sex, it's very scary. You're not sure what your sexuality is. You haven't had those experiences. I think a lot of those thoughts can be embodied by Freddy Krueger or other monsters. Are you ever going to fall in love? Are you ever going to have sex? All of those anxieties we have as kids. Horror movies really help us identify the fears that we have and allow us to experience them in a controlled, exciting and enjoyable way. It makes you more flexible and more accepting of these fearful realities that we have in our lives every day. In I Am Nancy, you really see that play out with fans as they talk about their fears and how important horror movies are to them.
What can you tell us about your lead role in the upcoming Jonathan Zarantonello film, the Butterfly Room?
I was approached by an Italian director, actually, at one of the [horror conventions] I went to, and asked if I'd be interested in reading the script. I liked it a lot. I thought it was very bizarre and, I thought, very scary, and he asked if I'd be able to take a role in the movie playing Barbara Steele's daughter. Barbara Steele, for those who don't know, is this huge horror icon from the '60s. I said yes, and we ended up having a great time. She plays evil very well, and I play her daughter, who's trying to save a young girl from her evil grasp.
You've had an interesting and somewhat sporadic career, appearing in a relatively few number of films over a relatively long period of time. What led you to choose that path as an actor?
Well, you know, a lot of things go into every decision that people make. With a family and kids and a husband who is often on the road traveling, it's just that putting the time into developing a really busy career is just something that never really came my way. In 2003, my husband and I went into business doing special-effects makeup, as a way to keep the family together. I've always just had more sporadic opportunities. I don't really know what the cause of it is. It's just how it turned out. You have to go with what your heart tells you to do at the time.