Heather Langenkamp was a student at Stanford University when Wes Craven cast her as Nancy Thompson, the heroine of the originalNightmare on Elm Street. The film became a genre classic and Thompson became an instant scream queen. She reprised the role for 1987’sNightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, then played a variation of herself for 1994’s New Nightmare. In between then, she got married, and turned her attentions behind the camera. She and her husband own and run AFX Studios, specializing in practical make-up special effects. (You might have spotted her, or not, as a heavily made-up alien in last summer’s Star Trek: Into Darkness.) With the release of the new documentary Never Sleep Again, she’s returned to the spotlight. In an exclusive interview with Mania, she talked about life as Nancy, life after Nancy, and the future of her current splatter-marked specialty.
Question: It occurs to me that you, Wes Craven and Robert Englund have the distinction of appearing as yourselves as the heroes in New Nightmare, not just as cameos or punchlines. That predates a lot of these self-referential appearances by quite a bit.
Heather Langenkamp: It was definitely a unique experience, though you’d think there was a lot more to it. When Wes presented us with the script, we were already used to him coming up with ideas that pushed boundaries. We expected it, actually. If you look at his films, starting with Last House on the Left, he likes to push boundaries of what’s expected. I don’t think people always understand just how revolutionary his scripts can be.
When he first presented me with the notion of playing myself, I have to say that I didn’t like it at all. But I didn’t think about it very much, because I thought it was the perfect next step for the series. It was something that had never been done before, especially in the context of a horror film. That breaking of the fourth wall. It’s similar to Being John Malkovich in a lot of ways. Or This is The End, where you have a bunch of actors playing themselves. And once you accept the basics – “okay, I’m playing a character named Heather Langenkamp, who’s supposed to be me” – then you can depart and just do you job and crate a character like you always do. Wes and I created this character that fits into the script. She’s not really that much like me except for the basic facts, but it has to present the impression of being me in order to make the more high-flown notions of the script come to life: to break that fourth wall and do all the amazing things that Wes wanted to do with it. It was part of the whole system that we had to live inside for the eight or ten weeks of the shoot. We ended up loving it, Robert and I. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.
Q: Did you feel like you were doing something special and innovative while you were making the first film?
HL: I didn’t know Wes’s work at that point, so I didn’t hold out much hope for this movie. When you’re an actor in LA, you have to work, and I was glad to have a job, and to be paying my bills, and living as an actor. We didn’t get paid a lot and the shoot was so short. I didn’t have a chance to think about whether it would be a hit or an icon or anything like that. I hoped it did well, I was happy with the work we did, and I thought it could be a fun, scary movie. That was about the extent of it. It was a really quick part of my life that has lasted thirty years and counting now.
I’ve thought back on that time and I’ve realized some things I wasn’t as aware of then. I do remember thinking that all of the people around Wes were very talented, all of these filmmakers making the movie with us. There was also a lot of happiness on that set: camaraderie and goodwill and excitement. Wes goes about making his movies with a lot of integrity, which translates into a great experience for all of us. Then the movie came out and it did well, and we thought, “okay, people like it!” And you move on to the next thing. Then a few years later, it comes out on VHS, and masses of people see it in their homes. I made a documentary myself about the Elm Street legacy, and I found out that 84% of the people who saw the original film watched it for the first time on VHS. That’s a staggering number. It was timed perfectly – quite inadvertently I’m sure – to capitalize on the home video revolution.
Q: Do you think that home experience help cement the film’s legacy, beyond just that a lot of people saw it on home video? Elm Street is literally about getting you where you sleep. Do you think watching it at home accentuated that?
HL: People like to watch horror movies at home in part because you can have a real community event. You can invite all your friends over. The other part was that the audience suddenly became much younger. People would be ten and convince their older brother to rent it for them so they could have a slumber party and get scared. You didn’t have a lot of those kinds of movies on the market at that time. There was a bit of a rebel mentality to it. You could rent this movie with your friends, even though it was rated “R” and you weren’t allowed to. It let you be a rule-breaker and still be a good kid. I talk to people all the time who say they snuck in and watched it when their older siblings were watching it, or how they got a copy and watched it with all their buddies in junior high. Horror movies thrive on that sense of forbidden fruit.
Q: Do people still recognize you as Nancy? Do people spot you and recognize you?
HL: At horror conventions and personal appearances it’s hard to hide. Those people are too knowing. Otherwise, it doesn’t happen that frequently. Every now and then I’ll get someone saying, ‘”Hey Nancy!” and that number spiked when New Nightmare came out. What’s amazing is that I’m recognized by people who weren’t even alive when the first film came out. We’re into our fourth generation of fans. The film really hasn’t dated at all. Besides the fashions and the haircuts, it’s really still relevant and accessible. It’s a classic, but it holds up very well with today’s horror films. It has the intensity that you see in today’s horror films. People respect it as a modern film.
Q: You and your husband have a special effects make-up company.
HL: We do.
Q: Where do you think practical effects are going in today’s environment? Do you think people are coming back to them, or will come back to them?
HL: I hope so. I won’t lie and say that it’s easy with all the emphasis on CG. My optimistic side says that practical effects are going to have a huge comeback. There’s something that practical effects do to the brain that make the movies a lot richer and a lot more interesting. It’s a fine art, and Hollywood’s gone through phases, where you’re up and down. Computer effects are an art too, but that visceral feeling, that reality of practical effects, it brings a lot. As an actor, it makes a big difference. It’s tough out there right now, and you have to compete these days, but you also look at shows like Face Off on Syfy that really lets you see what goes into it. It fascinates people, and I think and I hope that it’s going to have a bright future going forward in the movies.