A Nightmare On Elm Street, 35 years on

Simon Bland

We talk to A Nightmare On Elm Street star, Heather Langenkamp, about the cult film that's still delightfully scaring audiences to this day

“I don’t think any of us thought it would become a famous movie,” admits Heather Langenkamp, star of Director Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. “We didn’t think anything important would come from this film—you really can’t predict what will happen in your life.”

She’s not wrong. Back when Craven’s now-iconic franchise starter entered production there was little expectation surrounding his low-key slasher. Thirty five years later and hindsight reveals just how wrong we were. This story of a group of highschoolers tasked with battling bad dream boogeyman Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) went on to spawn a whopping seven sequels, introduce us to the burned face and clawed hand of a beloved cinema villain and cement Langenkamp’s status as not only a certified 80s Scream Queen but a key figure in the evolving role of women in horror.

nightmare on elm street

"Tina’s death scene was the most difficult to watch—I can barely watch that scene today, it’s so sad and grizzly. It breaks my heart every time"

“I took the job as a way to pay my rent,” Langenkamp tells Reader’s Digest. “It was a dream come true. This was a time where there were lots of teenagers clambering to get roles. It was the days of The Brat Pack and John Hughes films and it seemed like every movie was about teenagers,” she explains. “There were very few parts for women and there were probably way more women out looking for parts, so the chances were always very small. I was ecstatic,” says Langenkamp on bagging the role of headstrong Nancy. “I realised she was very much like me. She was righteous and loved her friends so much she’d do anything for them. It was easy for me to identify with her,” she adds. “I approached it like ‘If I had the very best version of myself out there in the world and I had to fight someone like Freddy, how would I do it?’ She was a few notches above what I dreamed myself to be so I was able to concentrate on bringing that to the screen.”

nightmare on elm street

Heather LangenKamp in A Nightmare On Elm Street 

By conjuring up her best self, Langenkamp’s Nancy was able to stop running and come face-to-face with Krueger—a scorned supernatural killer who strikes during his victim’s dreams—and in doing so, change the way cinema represented female heroes. Gone was the screaming damsel in distress and in her place, the defiant last girl standing—or as she became known, the Final Girl. That said, the journey wasn’t without its fair share of blood and guts. “Luckily Nancy didn’t have to endure the bloodiest scenes,” laughs Langenkamp. “Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene was the most difficult to watch—I can barely watch that scene today, it’s so sad and grizzly. It breaks my heart every time.” Still, there was room for levity on Craven’s set: “It took four or five hours to put Freddy into that make-up and he couldn’t take it off. We’d have lunch together and Robert would be picking at his lips because when you eat, it releases the glue. I remember eating lunch with him and never thinking twice that there was this hideous burned man next to me,” she smiles. “Your mind just gets used to it.” 

Joining Langenkamp was a host of emerging talent, including a fresh-faced Johnny Depp in his big screen debut. “We all got along so well,” she recalls. “We had all come from pretty modest places. We didn’t have many connections to Hollywood and we hadn’t been exposed to celebrity culture. Nobody was a star except Robert Englund. We were still on the first rung of that Hollywood ladder and as a result, we commiserated a lot about how tough it was to navigate this business when you’re from out of town.

"Why don’t you make your life have its purpose based in facing your fears and making your life better?"

Johnny was from Florida, I was from Oklahoma—we were all in the beginnings of our career so we really glommed on to each other as friends.” It was an innocent time: “The first time Johnny and I had a chance to hang out, we decided to go to the Griffith Park Observatory where James Dean and Natalie Wood made Rebel Without a Cause. We were just touristy kids, not unlike how people go to see the Nightmare on Elm Street house now,” she smiles. “It’s something that hundreds of people have told me they’ve done. I think ‘wow, that’s just like how Johnny and I went to see the set of our favourite movie.’” 

heather langenkamp Heather LangenKamp now

It’s a feeling that becomes more resonant with age: “As you get older you have more interesting reflections on what it was like to be a young woman growing up in the 80s. The thing I realise is the good fortune I had. That feeling hits me harder and harder,” says Langenkamp warmly. “I feel so lucky that I’m the one that gets to continue Wes’s legacy and encourage people to be like Nancy and take it one step further. Why don’t you make your life have its purpose based in facing your fears and making your life better? That’s the message Nancy has been the ambassador for - not only for young women but young men and everyone who really loves these movies,” she reasons. “We’re in a club where we speak this language of horror and in that language Nancy represents something really important. I don’t know why I’m so lucky—‘but being a Queen, you have to take on a lot of responsibility,” she smiles. “A Scream Queen is no different.” 


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