The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is about Freddy Krueger. With his burn scars, his tattered red and green sweater, his worn brown hat, and his knife-fingered glove, Freddy (as played by Robert Englund) has become a pop-culture icon, even for people who’ve never seen any of the Nightmare movies or who have no interest in horror. It’s common for horror franchises to become defined by their villains, looming figures of quiet menace (Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series) or charismatic tricksters who get all the best lines (Freddy, Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise). The victims or adversaries – who are often eventually victims – come and go, but the franchises endure thanks to their villains.
The success of the Nightmare series turned Freddy into little more than a cartoon character, though, and as strong as Englund’s performance can be, Freddy isn’t ever afforded the chance for depth or growth. The heart of the series, then, belongs to Freddy’s first worthy foe, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), the self-assured teen who appears to defeat Freddy in the original 1984 film, and went on to face him in 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and 1994’s New Nightmare. Langenkamp is easily the best actor in the series, taking Nancy on an emotional journey over the course of her three films, while Freddy turns into a bit of a joke.
In writer-director Wes Craven’s original Nightmare, Nancy is introduced as a typical suburban teen, walking to school while wearing the letterman jacket of her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), and her comparative shyness in contrast to her bolder friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) seems to position her as an innocent for the eventual slaughter. But when Freddy starts killing Nancy’s friends in their dreams, first Tina and then Tina’s boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri), Nancy doesn’t cower in fear or suffer a mental breakdown. She plans and investigates, enlisting Glen as her (sometimes hapless) assistant, and accomplishing more to get to the bottom of the mystery than her own cop dad (John Saxon) does.
Nancy is defiant and unrelenting, but she’s also 16, and Langenkamp plays her with the perfect mix of righteous anger and teen petulance. Nancy doesn’t hesitate to take on a leadership position, even if that means giving orders to her own parents, but she also rolls her eyes at her mother’s increasingly desperate efforts to get Nancy to go to sleep. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she groans when offered warm milk, already jaded about the dangerously skeptical adults surrounding her. “Oh God, I look 20 years old,” she sighs with withering contempt when looking in the mirror after another bout of disturbing dreams, expressing both the bone-deep weariness of her battle with Freddy and self-centered teenage short-sightedness.
And she defeats Freddy not by stabbing him or burning him (as the parents of the town of Springwood, Ohio, did to Freddy when he was alive, in punishment for his murder of children) but by taking away his psychological power over her. “I take back every bit of energy I gave you,” she says, turning her back on Freddy as he dissipates into nothingness. As everyone around her succumbs to fear, Nancy confronts and overcomes her fears, proving herself the strongest character in the movie.
“I’m into survival,” Nancy tells Glen when he finds her perusing books about improvised explosives, and Dream Warriors demonstrates just how into survival Nancy still is. Executive produced and co-written by Craven (and directed by Chuck Russell), Dream Warriors brings Nancy back after an unrelated storyline in the second Nightmare movie, and in the six years that have passed since the events of the first movie, Nancy has taken on more of the burden that she bore in the original. She’s graduated from researching anti-personnel devices to researching the nature of dreams themselves, and she’s labeled a “grad school superstar” by the staffers at the psychiatric hospital where she’s just been hired as a consultant.
Still sporting the gray streak in her hair that she developed in the first movie after her battles with Freddy, Nancy initially appears onscreen completing the nursery rhyme-style refrain about Freddy that’s become a staple of the series, using it to connect with, and calm, troubled teen Kristin (Patricia Arquette). Once again, Nancy is confident and assertive in the face of doubts from older authority figures, in this case the doctors and hospital administrators who don’t believe that Kristin and her fellow troubled teens are being stalked by Freddy in their nightmares. Nancy provides the kind of validation and support that she never got as a teen, believing Kristin and the other teenage patients and encouraging their ideas on how to defeat Freddy for good.
Of course, Freddy is never defeated for good, and while Nancy spends Dream Warriors as a maturing, empathetic woman, Freddy just cracks jokes, already on the path to the pop-culture jester he’d later become. He’s nowhere near as goofy as he is in the later sequels, and he’s still a scary enough presence to bring real menace to his threats against Nancy and her teenage wards, but he’s not as mysterious or ominous as he was in the original movie. Freddy’s backstory, as “the bastard son of 100 maniacs,” gets a lot of screen time in Dream Warriors – but Nancy’s rough life over the past six years is more affecting, even just in offhand remarks.
Nancy mentions that her mother died in her sleep, and she tracks down her dad, drunk in a bar, now in a security guard’s uniform instead of a cop’s. Their estrangement is a sad comment on how Freddy’s influence has continued to shape Nancy’s life, and at the end of the movie, when Nancy finally gets a tender moment of reconciliation with her father, it turns out to be one more trick from Freddy. Freddy kills Nancy here (as part of Craven’s futile effort to bring the series to a close), but what’s more tragic is that he denies her closure and progress at the end. At least she leaves behind a legacy of empowered teens who won’t back down from Freddy or from anyone who doubts them, just like Nancy never did.
Dressed in a lot of boxy career-woman-of-1987 outfits, Nancy sometimes seems uncomfortable in Dream Warriors, like a teenager still playacting at being an adult, but by the time of New Nightmare, Langenkamp has grown into that responsibility and maturity; so has Nancy, in a way. Craven’s return as writer and director (and yet another fruitless attempt at ending the franchise), New Nightmare casts Langenkamp as herself, the star of two previous Nightmare movies who’s never escaped the shadow of her most famous role. Craven’s conceit is that Freddy represents a sort of elemental evil force that’s been trapped by the Nightmare films and is now escaping into the real world, since the series has (allegedly) ended.
The meta elements of New Nightmare allow Langenkamp to push back against being typecast (she gives a Nancy-worthy eye-roll to the limo driver who says, “You played that girl in that movie”), but also to portray another step in Nancy’s evolution, as a mother and protector of a new generation. “Heather” in New Nightmare is a combination of Langenkamp and Nancy, eventually blurring the lines between the two when Freddy makes his escape, and John Saxon (also playing himself) reverts to the role of Nancy’s dad. New Nightmare is filled with callbacks, both major and minor, to the original movie, but despite eventually being clad in Nancy’s iconic pajamas, Langenkamp never reverts as a performer or as a character.
This movie’s Heather/Nancy is still confident and assertive, and is still doubted by authority figures, now getting dismissed as a hysterical mother when she believes that her young son Dylan (Miko Hughes) is being stalked by Freddy. Although Heather has a tougher time believing Dylan about “the man” chasing him in his dreams than Nancy does believing the teenage patients in Dream Warriors, she’s never dismissive of her son, and when he ends up in the care of doctors following what appears to be a seizure, she doesn’t hesitate to protect him in any way she can, even if that means going against another set of skeptical gatekeepers.
“It was you that gave Nancy her strength,” Craven (playing himself) tells Heather when asking her to appear in one final Nightmare movie in order to banish the evil entity for good, and even if some of that strength originated in Craven’s writing, he’s correct to give Langenkamp credit for making it feel real. Watch her three movies in succession, and Nightmare doesn’t feel like Freddy’s story anymore. Nancy has less in common with a slasher-movie “final girl” or an anonymous victim than she does with action-movie heroines like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley or Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, both of whom summoned reserves of inner strength when faced with horrifying circumstances.
In the 2011 documentary I Am Nancy, which follows Langenkamp on the convention circuit as she attempts to get Nancy the kind of fan attention that Freddy inspires, Craven jokes that Nancy would need to bulk up and wield a machine gun (like Ripley or Sarah Connor) in order to become a pop-culture staple like Freddy. But the best thing about Nancy, and about Langenkamp’s performance, is that her strength doesn’t come from muscles or firearms. It comes from who she is, from her thoughts and emotions and personality, and whatever horrors surround her, those weapons are always enough for her to triumph.