The so-called “final girl” (a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her oft-referenced 1992 book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”) is a trope that's given us an endless supply of forgettable characters, but “A Nightmare on Elm Street” protagonist Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) isn't one of them. Unlike the majority of '80s slasher heroines, Nancy is depicted as strong, capable, smart and thoughtful, and it's all thanks to the great Wes Craven, one of the few older (almost universally white and male) filmmakers to treat his teenage characters with respect.
I can't stress this enough: Nancy is the absolute best “final girl” of the early slasher cycle. Langenkamp certainly deserves her share of the credit (she played her, after all) but young, up-and-coming actors are ultimately at the mercy of the material they're given, and Langenkamp was blessed to play a character who sprang from the mind of a filmmaker as focused on crafting interesting victims as he was memorable killers.
As a writer/director of films that almost always centered on (and were designed to appeal to) young people, Craven was a rare and welcome phenomenon: a filmmaker who never condescended to his characters or his audience. He didn't boil teenagers down to a set of surface attributes but recognized them as thinking, intelligent human beings with valid opinions, complex inner lives and profound ways of looking at the world.
“I think it's important to listen to kids…just learn from them,” said Craven in a 2014 interview with fellow director Mick Garris. “And keep your ideas young, and just, you have to work at — not staying young — I mean, you're gonna get old…but young in the sense of continually reappraising your ideas of what's what, and staying open to the world as it develops. …I've never tried to learn the lingo of kids or anything like that. But I've tried to stay open to the world as much as I can, and I think that makes a difference.”
While Langenkamp adheres to the “final girl” tradition by not being a bombshell (both Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne King in “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” set the template for the “naturally pretty,” virginal survivor), Craven's stated reason for casting her is very telling of the way he envisioned his young protagonists: as whole people, not idealized “Hollywood” archetypes.
”She did not look like your typical Hollywood ingenue,” he recalled in a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly. ”She had a great strength and honesty to her face.”
Later in the piece, he chalks up Langenkamp's decidedly non-A-list post-“Nightmare” career in part to the fact that she didn't live up to the Tinseltown ideal of what a leading lady should look like: “I liked that Heather had a natural beauty. But Hollywood always thinks everybody has to look strikingly beautiful in a certain mold. Everything just perfect, perfect.”
Craven started out as an academic, and that background is apparent in the way he approached the material in “Elm Street,” which, unlike most “Dead Teenager” movies, is a film of real thematic value. It was not made to flatly depict the senseless slaughter of nubile victims for entertainment; rather, it deals with violence in a mature and nuanced way. It tackles heady concepts: the cycle of revenge, the nature of reality, the necessary rebellion against parental authority, how adults are often no wiser (and often less wise) than the children they're raising, and Nancy functions as the moral center of the story; not as some vacuous arbiter of conventional wisdom but as an active protagonist who openly rebels against the skewed moral compass of her parents' generation. She is more action-movie heroine than screaming victim, and smart about the methods she employs to defeat the scarred dream-killer who haunts her.
Nancy is not perfect, and that is a part of her appeal. But she is also in many ways aspirational, boasting a potent combination of smarts, determination and courage — all attributes that any real-life teenager (or full-grown adult, for that matter) would do well to emulate. I always go back to the dream sequence in the school basement where, cornered by Freddy, Nancy throws her arm against a scalding-hot pipe to wake herself up. It's a small but important narrative decision that points to Craven's respect for his central character — a young woman who exercises control over her own destiny and doesn't wait for others to come and save her. This is no more apparent than in Nancy's final encounter with Freddy, when she turns her back on the supernatural killer and informs him, plainly: “You're nothing. You're shit.”
This denouement represents perhaps the most important aspect of Nancy as a character, and it goes beyond gender: after employing all manner of violent methods to vanquish Freddy, she ultimately defeats him (at least until the studio-mandated ending) using the power of her mind. In doing so, she rebels against the cycle of violence itself, which is key to Craven's vision. “Elm Street” is counterintuitive as violent popcorn entertainment in that it is actually a reaction against violence (as was Craven's 1972 debut “The Last House on the Left”), and Nancy demonstrates that to be “bad-ass” doesn't mean perpetuating the dominant framework of toxic male aggression but rather rising above it. That is perhaps her most important legacy, and a wonderful reflection on the man who created her.