It is with a sad and heavy heart to report that today, July 17, 2015, Heather Lagenkamp, star of several films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, passed away. She was- oh wait, I misread that. Heather Lagenkamp didn’t die, she was BORN on July 17; in 1964 so that would make her 51 years old. Thanks Wikipedia. Well Happy Birthday to you.
Nightmare on Elm Street turns 31 this year – I totally missed the ball on doing something for its 30th anniversary. To be totally honest, however, wouldn’t that be trite? Nightmare on Elm Street has been phenomenally popular for three decades and everybody’s talked about it ad infinitum and placed it on damn near every list of “Best” horror movies. One simply cannot discuss horror films without covering Nightmare on Elm Street in depth – I know I’ve discussed this far too many times. So if I’m going to talk about Nightmare on Elm Street I want to approach it differently – let’s talk about it’s star instead, and I don’t mean Robert Englund because, talented as he is, he’s been talked about a lot too. I’m pretty sure we’re familiar enough with Englund’s work and there is very little new I could say about Englund that we don’t already know. So how about Heather Lagenkamp? I mean she defeated Freddy Krueger three times – twice as Nancy and once as herself. Let’s give her the spotlight.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
But let’s start with Nightmare on Elm Street anyway. Prior to 1984 Lagenkamp had small roles in both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish which were shot in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma but those brief scenes were ultimately cut from the film. She also starred in the movie Nickel Mountain in 1984 which I am told gained positive reviews but I will have to take the internet’s word on that one because I’ve never seen it. It was landing the leading role as Nancy Thompson in 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street that really launched her career.
You know who else auditioned for that role? Among the 200 hopefuls were Courtney Cox, Demi Moore, Tracey Gold and Jennifer Grey. Could you imagine how very different Nightmare on Elm Street would have turned out with someone like Demi Moore as the heroine? Not to slight to their abilities but it is pretty difficult to imagine those women in this role now and how their careers would have progressed hence. Thankfully, Wes Craven wanted someone “non-Hollywood” for the role and Lagenkamp fit that bill perfectly. She brings a lot more wit and intelligence to what’s essentially the “final girl” in a slasher film. Nancy Thompson is much more than a pretty face, she is a believable character which is perhaps one of the things that makes Nightmare on Elm Street truly stand out among horror films of the 1980s: it’s cast including Robert Englund, Jon Saxon and Heather Lagenkamp filled the roles of people rather than archetypes. As a side note, not as many people auditioned for the role of Nancy’s boyfriend Glen so that role was just tossed to some green nobody actor Johnny Depp (who auditioned for the role along with his friend Jackie Earle Haley who would later play Freddy in the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street).
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET SEQUELS
With the exception of Robert Englund reprising the role of Freddy Krueger, none of the original cast or crew worked on Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (which, btw, is a fascinatingly subversive film I need to discuss again sometime soon). Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, however, was developed by Wes Craven and brought Lagenkamp back as Nancy. Craven’s initial idea for a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel involved Freddy crossing over into the real world and haunting the actors and crew of Nightmare on Elm Street which New Line hated but would allow Craven to make several years later.
Many fans cite Dream Warriors as their favorite film in the franchise and, indeed, there is a lot to love about this film. For me the series essentially ends here and is revived later with New Nightmare. It’s the last one in the series that really feels like a horror film. While there are some comedic moments and celebrity cameos from Dick Cavett and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Freddy Krueger became such a pop icon after this that further sequels and that Freddy’s Nightmares TV show kinda took the horror out of the franchise. I don’t want to say that this is the peak of Lagenkamp’s career because to say that of anyone rather discredits good work they’ve done afterward. However, looking at the critical/financial success of the films and how much she was in the spotlight at this time, her work would not achieve the level of recognition it did from 1984-87.
But what about the rest of Lagenkamp’s work…?
FURTHER ACTING ROLES
Afterschool Specials of course!! I mean, if you were an actor in the late 70s and 80s and looked like a teenager you were going to do one of these specials. It was practically required, almost like a community service necessary to maintain SAG membership. Lagenkamp starred in CBS’ Special “Have You Tried Talking to Patty?” about a deaf girl that wants to be be accepted by her peers. Pretty typical for the genre but check out this cast: in addition to Lagenkamp we have Mark Patton (Nightmare on Elm Street 2) and Deedee Pfeiffer. I haven’t seen it but it might be as deliciously melodramatic as the Martin Sheen directed “Babies Having Babies” with Sean Penn’s mom. Heather was also in the ABC Afterschool Special “Can a Guy Say No?” about how the prettiest girl in school is a nutcase and wel… Beau Bridges is in it.
But speaking of television work, Heather Lagenkamp made an appearance on Growing Pains which was profound enough to warrant a spin-off series Just the Ten of Us in which Lagenkamp was a main role. Just the Ten of Us was popular enough and gained a cult following – so much so in fact that when the show was canceled an obsessed fan began sending Lagenkamp threatening letters – an experience which served as some inspiration for New Nightmare. In 1994 she played the role of Nancy Kerrigan in a television movie Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story. (Aside: Does anyone remember that Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan drama? Those girls and Amy Fisher were the subject of far too many TV movies in the mid 90s). Heather Lagenkamp is still acting, from a supporting role in Star Trek Into Darkness to a role in the 2014 season of American Horror Story – she’s still getting plenty of more work beyond documentaries and interviews about Nightmare on Elm Street.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Do you recall how in New Nightmare Heather Lagenkamp’s character (of Heather Lagenkamp) is married to a make-up FX artist (played by David Newsom)? Not that far from the truth. Heather is indeed married to Academy Award winning makeup-FX artist David LeRoy Anderson (awards shared with collaborator Rick Baker). The husband and wife team own and operate AFX Studio and the two of them have worked together to provide special effects make-up for a variety of films including Dawn of the Dead (2004) Cabin in the Woods, and Star Trek Into Darkness. While she’s done a lot of successful and commendable work beyond Nightmare on Elm Street, she is still proud of the work that gave her a great start – producing both Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and I Am Nancy – but it’s good to see the star of a horror franchise have a rewarding career beyond that legacy.