Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced horror movie audiences to Heather Langenkamp, and those audiences have been responding enthusiastically ever since. Praise for the 20-year old brunette’s performance as the dream-haunted Nancy Thompson has come from places as diverse as Dallas, Texas—where the influential Dallas Times-Herald drive-in movie critic Joe Bobb Briggs called her “the new Jamie Lee Curtis” and Avoriaz, France, where she was given a “Best Performance” award at the fantasy and science-fiction film festival there.
Miss Langenkamp, who comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was working as a newspaper office girl a couple years ago when Francis Ford Coppola came down to film The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Responding to a newspaper ad, she got a role as an extra in the first film and landed a speaking part in the second, although her scene was cut out of the final print. Since then, she’s played Joanne Woodward’s daughter in the made-for-TV movie Passions and starred in the as-yet unreleased Nickel Mountain, a film adaptation of the John Gardner novel.
Currently, the ebullient Miss Langenkamp divides her time between acting in Los Angeles and studying at Stanford University.
Of her part in A Nightmare on Elm Street, she says, “I was pretty surprised I got the part, actually. I didn’t think I was really a horror-movie kind of a girl. They didn’t even ask us if we knew how to scream, which was a crucial part of the movie.”
FANGORIA: What was it like making your first horror picture?
Heather Langenkamp: It was such a fun movie to make. The people on the set, the actors—they were very intelligent people. You know, I never expected that people who did these movies were such erudite, intelligent people. Especially Wes [Craven]. Wes was a fountain of knowledge, and such an incredibly witty man, one of those people who is always making puns on everything you say, so you feel like you have to counter. It made the set a really sort of happy place.
You thought it might be a little grimmer?
Yeah. You know, a lot of the sets you work on, especially for TV, those people are so clued into their work that there’s really not much time for joking and laughing. Every minute is thousands of dollars. But on a movie set, things are a lot more relaxed, and you just feel like you get to know the people you’re working with so much better. That’s the way I felt with everyone who worked in that movie, even the crew. There was so much screaming and everything all the time on the set that there had to be something to kind of lighten up the attitude, I think. Everyone was always playing jokes on each other. Wes’ wife was always on the set, bringing cookies to everybody. It was like camp. It was great.
What was your impression of Wes Craven as a director?
He’s a very quiet-speaking person; he would never yell at anyone or raise his voice. I think he had a pretty firm idea of what he wanted. That’s not unusual, though, especially since he wrote the script. He did leave a lot up to the actor, but if he didn’t agree with your interpretation or your line-reading, he would offer corrections. But they were very civilized corrections. We had some experience on the set with another director, Sean Cunningham, on the very last day, and he was like 180 degrees different from Wes. And after seeing how that horror film director directed—well, there was a marked difference. Wes is a lot more soft-spoken, while Sean gestured much more and was much more emphatic about everything.
So Cunningham directed a few scenes of the film?
I think he directed one scene, and it didn’t have any dialogue in it. It was just a chase scene, and I guess it was necessary because we were really running out of time and we needed a good second-unit director.
Any memorable experiences while filming?
Well, there were good memorable experiences and bad memorable experiences. We worked so hard. After a while, they had a doctor come around and give everyone vitamin shots because you get really worn down after about three weeks of night shooting. So, after a while, everyone gets sort of tired. We did a scene where I’m in the bathtub and this unknown hand sticks up out of the water and is about to get me when I wake up and it disappears. Then I fell back asleep and I’m jerked under the water. The bottom was cut out of the bathtub so that I could fall into it. We planned on spending about two hours doing that scene, but they had the bathtub filled with freezing cold water. I said, “I’d really like this water to be a little bit warmer because I’m going to be sitting in it,” so it took an hour to warm the water and get the bubbles just right, and it turned out that I was in the bathtub for about 12 hours, and my skin just pruned, and I didn’t have anything to sit on in the bathtub because it was bottomless. It was a really difficult day. But Wes, you know, always tried to make me feel good the whole day.
But then, there were really funny days, too. Robert Englund, who plays the monster, always made things more exciting. He’s studied at RADA, the Royal Academy of Drama Arts, and he’s been everywhere and has a great personality. One thing that was very funny—Wes always wore khaki pants and a plaid shirt, and one day the entire crew, the grips and the gaffers, came to work in khaki pants and plaid shirts. And all day, they were scratching their chins like Wes does. We did a short film of them walking down the hallway with Wes, all in the same position. I wear a gray streak in my hair for the second half of the movie, and one day, everyone came to work with a gray streak in their hair. They were always ready to do something like that.
Are you a horror movie fan yourself?
I always would watch a certain kind of horror movie when I was growing up, movies that didn’t have too much incredible violence. I don’t know if you even call them horror movies. Burnt Offerings, I remember, was one of my favorites. I even loved Halloween. But I would never go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any of those.
Do you feel the same way now?
Well, I could watch a horror movie much more easily now. I know they’re not as horrible as they really look. I still scream a lot when I go to the movies and something scares me. I’m a real screamer—and in the movie, I scream the whole time. I never lost my voice or anything. I think God stepped in and gave me really strong vocal chords for those seven weeks.
What do you think is the reason for the film’s success?
There a lot of movies, like Friday the 13th, with kids going into the woods and getting killed. But I don’t think there was a really good horror movie last year, where audiences could really identify with the kids. In this movie, the kids have a real relationship with one another and a real care about what happens to the others. And it is one of those movies where the parents are sort of the bad guys and the kids are good, heroic, virtuous people. I went to see the movie in a big theater, and it’s one of those movies where the audience really loves to talk along with the picture. Things are constantly happening where the people are shouting, “No! Don’t go in there!” My mother [Ronee Blakley] is an alcoholic in the movie, and she’s always just swigging her vodka, and people have a lot of fun with that, too. There’s a lot of humor in this movie. Wes has such an incredible sense of humor that, if you’re really looking for it, you’ll find it in every scene.
How do you feel being called “the new Jamie Lee Curtis?”
Actually, that’s pretty much of a compliment. I think she brought a lot of respectability to horror movies. I think today that a lot of people will look back on their role in a horror movie and try to deny that they ever did it, or sort of push it under the rug and say, “Oh, that was when I was young and didn’t know anything.” But Jamie Lee Curtis was able to take that kind of role and really do something with her career, and I think that’s what you should always try to do. I don’t think you should do a movie that you’re going to feel sorry you did. Plus—this sounds pretty corny, I guess—as a woman doing a film, if you can’t try to make your character look intelligent or at least someone you would sympathize with, then there’s not much point in doing the film. I thought A Nightmare on Elm Street was one film were the girls in the film were the only people who really had any idea of what was really going on. The men couldn’t see past their noses. And in that way, it’s also pretty funny.
So you’d like to do other horror films if the opportunity arose?
Yes. In fact, there’s a rumor in the breeze that they’re going to make a sequel, if they do, I’d be honored to be in it.