Friday, February 24, 2012

Nancy vs. Freddy: 25 Years of "Dream Warriors"

Freddy vs. Vogue Boy
05/22/10, The Day Robert Jeffrey Met Robert Englund!

This weekend marks an astonishing 25 years since the release of one of the most popular and truly beloved horror films of all time: Chuck Russell’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors. Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the most acclaimed film in the series, and my favorite horror film of all time. Renny Harlin’s Hollywood breakthrough, A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master, was the highest-grossing installment in the Freddy franchise. But “Dream Warriors”, with its troubled teens, surreal setpieces, and the dramatic character arc of returning heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), makes it the most enduringly popular—if not the very best.

In honor of the Silver Anniversary of a film that will NEVER age to me, here’s a Summer 2006 chestnut from my Emerson College days. Written for one of my favorite professors, Rachel Thibault, it underlines why the feminist “Elm Street” series has more meaning to me than any other group of horror films this side of Dario Argento. 

Robert E. Jeffrey
MA405: 1980s Film and History


Facing Freddy: The Story of Nancy Thompson

            Throughout the 1980s, among the most popular and quickly multiplied of film franchises were the teen-oriented horror sequels spun off from John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. All three of these films concerned the plight of a group of teenagers who fall victim to a blade-wielding killer who prematurely ends their often sexually confused lives, and all three of them build up in action to a “Final Girl” standoff in the last act.

“[The] Final Girl is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself.”
                                    Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws  35)

            One of these horror sagas, the “Nightmare” films, was not launched until 1984, by which time a collective total of seven Halloween and “Friday” films had already hit American screens, along with dozens of thinly-veiled rip-offs. By most accounts, this cottage industry splatter genre had passed its commercial peak. “All the major studios [sent me] rejection letters. ‘Nobody will be afraid of anything that happens in a dream. The horror film is dead.’ This was during a period [of] backlash against the Friday the 13th [series].” (Schoell, Spencer 179-80) When Robert Shaye, head of fledgling New Line Cinema, bought Craven’s script and put the film into production, he unknowingly launched not only a lasting cultural phenomenon in Robert Englund’s portrayal of “Freddy Krueger” but also a watershed heroine in “Nancy Thompson”, as immortalized by actress Heather Langenkamp.

            Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is the ultimate metaphor for teenage disenchantment, rebellion, and perceived suppression as realized through one of the most original concepts in post-Psycho psychological horror. “Several teenagers discover they’re all having nightmares about the same character, scar-faced Fred Krueger—a kind of ghost who can enter their dreams at will, and kill them in macabre ways. It’s up to surviving teen Nancy to try to stop him.” (Maltin 920) Through the course of the film, Nancy uncovers that Krueger had been “a filthy child murderer who killed at least twenty kids” with his razor-fingered glove. She concludes that he is haunting Nancy and her friends because their parents were part of a vigilante mob that burned Freddy alive after a judge set him free. In a sequence cut from the first edit of the film, Nancy learns from her mother that “you weren’t always an only child”. In a sequence cut from the shooting script, it is revealed that it was only Nancy’s mother who was brave enough in a crowd full of men to set Freddy ablaze, and this is why Nancy is the most psychologically tormented of the teenagers. (The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia DVD)
            Had Wes Craven maintained the subplot about Nancy’s mother’s vengeful audacity, he would have highlighted the seed of strength in mother and daughter that lead to Nancy being dubbed “the grittiest of the Final Girls” by Carol J. Clover. Craven wrote the role of Nancy to symbolize “good/beauty” versus Freddy’s “evil/beast”. “I wanted somebody for Nancy that was very non-Hollywood, somebody I felt could live next door:  not the blonde bimbette, but your babysitter. Heather [Langenkamp] had that, [and a vital] sense of personal courage about her. Once she came in I recognized her.” (Craven, The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia).
Unlike the sexually repressed “virgin-heroine” prototyped in horror iconography by Jamie Lee Curtis’s “Laurie Strode” in Halloween and subsequently carbon-copied for the anti-sex “slasher movie” knockoffs that followed in its wake, Nancy Thompson is better defined as a (possible) “virgin” and a “heroine”. Whereas Halloween’s Laurie was burying her teen sexuality beneath layers of academia and maternal obligation (“You must have a small fortune stashed from babysitting so much!” remarked another character in that film), Nancy is very much in touch with her womanhood, and very much in control of it. She frequently asserts power over her boyfriend, Glenn (Johnny Depp), and though we never see Nancy engage in sex in the film, it is never revealed or denied that she is in fact “a virgin”. Instead, we see her telling her boyfriend to withhold from intimacy on two occasions, in both cases due not to a negative conception of sex, but rather because of more important obligations (showing support to a troubled friend and working on a plan to fight Freddy, respectively). She employs his license to drive  to make a late-night trip to the police station following a vivid nightmare, but upon entering the station she takes charge, demanding to be taken seriously by a night guard while Glenn is silent behind her. She seeks the aid of his assumed physical strength (“You’re the jock, you have a baseball bat or something!”) in pummeling Freddy, but only after she has first defeated him on his dream turf and pulled him into “her world”.

Glenn’s inability to stay awake—or to heed insomniac Nancy’s grave warning that “whatever you do, don’t fall asleep!”—costs him his life, but Nancy goes forth with a plan to pull Freddy into the waking world all the same. Rather than relying on “male” physical strength to overpower Freddy, she constructs a virtually fool-proof annihilation before she even goes to sleep. “When [Freddy] enters the house, she dares him to come at her, then charges him in direct attack. As they struggle, he springs the contraptions she has set so that he is stunned by a swinging sledge hammer, jolted and half-incinerated by an electrical charge” (Clover 38). Nancy finally defeats Freddy, though, not with violence, but by “taking away his power”. Freddy has killed all of her friends and committed the final sin of murdering her mother, and he is about to finally tear apart Nancy after the house-of-horrors pains just inflicted upon him. Instead of running, Nancy faces him, and tells him that she wants them all back. She turns her back on Freddy, and with cool, authoritative control, tells him that “I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You’re nothing.” Not unlike Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in the Academy Award winner The Silence of the Lambs the following decade, Nancy uses her mind, her intuition, and her fearlessness to “compensate” for her seeming physical vulnerability up against a powerful (male) killer (“Silence” Criterion Commentary). The “draining of energy through certainty” motif is also vaguely Pagan in thinking, suggesting a defense of “White Magic” against “Black Magic”; this is likely no mistake either, as Craven would later note the importance of Heather’s long brown hair as a repository of Nancy’s (magic) power, and Robert Englund has frequently noted that the Krueger make-up was partly modeled on the concept of “a male witch”. (A Nightmare on Elm Street Audio Commentary; Elm Street: The Making of a Nightmare)
Despite initial resistance from Hollywood studio brass, A Nightmare on Elm Street would prove to be a mammoth commercial success, as the $1.8 million film went on to gross nearly $26 million in the United States alone (“”). However, Craven was forced to alter his ending to please New Line president Robert Shaye; as a result, Nancy’s “victory” in the shooting script is slightly compromised by a “final scare” in the last frame that left open a sequel window. Indeed, one year later, New Line released A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Despite the loss of Craven and Langenkamp’s participation, the $3 million film outgrossed its predecessor with a whopping $30 million haul. (“”)

We were discovered by the heavy metallers and the punkers. They picked up on the dark nihilistic side of these films. It wasn’t sold to them by MTV, or a lot of advertising on television. There was no media hype at all for the first two movies. It was completely a grass-roots phenomenon.
                        Robert Englund          (Schoell, Spencer 188)
The “Nightmare” films were so financially successful, and progressively became so much more mainstream, that “New Line Cinema has come to be called ‘The House That Freddy Built’” (Schoell, Spencer 199). In 1987, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was the first “Nightmare” film to open with a national theatrical release and with a major advertising campaign, including a heavy metal music video and further MTV coverage. The film grossed an astounding $45 million, followed by 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the most successful film in the franchise with U.S. grosses of just under $50 million. (The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia; “”) 

Throughout these peak years, the “Nightmare” films consistently relied on the importance of strong female protagonists. More importantly, during this period New Line player Rachel Talalay, who was behind the scenes of each “Nightmare” film from the beginning, saw her role at the studio and in the franchise progressively rise in prominence. By “Nightmare 4”, she was co-producer. “We basically developed the characters and their dreams and started prepping the movie,” says Talalay of the origins of “Nightmare 4”. “We were developing and prepping the special effects before we had any script at all.” (Schoell, Spencer 83) It was Talalay who discovered budding Finnish director Renny Harlin; after seeing his debut film, Prison, she felt that he could give the film, and particularly the dream sequences, a truly distinct visual style that she felt had been neglected in earlier installments. (Elm Street: The Making of a Nightmare) Together, Talalay and Harlin reworked the story, ultimately serving up a platter that, for all its dizzyingly surreal setpieces, was arguably so successful because it, like the first film, placed such importance on the arc of its heroine. Says Harlin, “It was really about a mousy girl who finds herself and gains strength, physically and mentally, to cope with all the problems in life. It was done through supernatural events, but it was a very simple story that touched, I believe, the hearts of our core audience” (Schoell, Spencer 83). Appropriately enough, a significant portion of that core audience defied long-held genre expectations that horror films make money off of strictly male audiences. “My impression is that the A Nightmare on Elm Street series in particular attracted girls in groups.” (Clover 23)

More than twenty years have passed since the release of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and while the series remains a prominent staple of the horror genre and perennial bestseller on home video, it is arguably best represented by the subsequent proliferation of forceful female roles in genre films (The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, The Descent) and most especially television shows, namely the feminist sci-fi/fantasy universe of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nonetheless, this potent tale of female good versus male evil remains forever intertwined with the decade that bore it. “It never really occurred to me that it was a horror movie,” says Heather “Nancy” Langenkamp. “I always looked at it as a teenage parable, [Nancy’s] struggle with all of these forces, not only her parents, but also this external boogeyman.” (A Nightmare on Elm Street Audio Commentary) During the commercial peak of the series, the boogeyman himself, Robert Englund, offered a similar theory on what Freddy symbolized for 80s audiences, and why the heroines of Elm Street offered viewers salvation.

Kids [today] will probably not live as well as their parents. You can imagine what it is like to be seventeen or eighteen and enter a world with a drug culture and hardly any jobs on the horizon, and AIDS and racial unrest. Freddy represents all of these things that are out of kilter in the world, all the sins of the parents that are being passed on. I think [teenagers] enjoy the consistency of this evil character and the unapologetic relish that he has for his reign of terror. [The heroines in turn] keep this horrible future they are about to inherit—this future with race riots, an AIDS epidemic, with unemployment, with no sex because it’s ‘dirty’—at bay”.
                                                            (Schoell, Spencer 187)

Works Cited: 


Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
            New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992

Maltin, Leonard. 2006 Video Movie Guide. New York: Signet, 2005.

Schoell, William, and Spencer, James. The ‘Nightmare’ Never Ends.
            New York: Citadel Press, 1992.

Elm Street: The Nightmare Never Ends
1988 HMS Communications
Writer/Director/Executive Producer: Drew Cummings
Out of Print

Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Directed by John Carpenter
Available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Audio Commentary)
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Available on DVD from New Line Cinema

The Silence of the Lambs (Audio Commentary)
Out of Print Criterion Collection DVD, 1998

The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia
Available in The Nightmare on Elm Street DVD Collection
From New Line Cinema, 1999



  1. One of my favorites as well. This is not spam btw, but Fright Rags has a Dream Master limited edition tee but it's limited to 400 and its at We don't get characters like Nancy anymore.

  2. We sure don't R.J. but I am hopeful that writers will bring back the heroines we all so very much need in today's society! (Thanks for sharing that link, I hope some readers got to snatch them before they were gone!!)