Tuesday 4 March 2014

I am Nancy (2011)

Director: Arlene Marechal
Star: Heather Langenkamp
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I missed I am Nancy at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011 for a variety of reasons, but I wasn't heartbroken about it. It didn't appear to be a particularly important documentary, even if its subject was there in person as a special guest. Sure, Heather Langenkamp played a pivotal character in modern horror, Nancy Thompson, the heroine of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but she hadn't done a heck of a lot else. She returned to this franchise twice, reprising her character in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and starring as herself in the later meta version, New Nightmare, but didn't spin that into other work. By that point, she'd appeared in only eight other pictures over almost three decades. Counting screen time alone, she worked more on the TV show Just the Ten of Us, a spinoff from Growing Pains, than the entire rest of her film career combined. She'd shifted mostly off screen into make up effects work, running the special effects shop AFX Studio with her husband, David Anderson.

So when I finally caught up with I am Nancy, I found that I ran through a little of what Langenkamp ran through while making the movie, which was an enlightening experience. It's a surprising documentary, which has a very different approach to 2010's far more traditional Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, which Langenkamp narrated and executive produced. That was an exhaustive four hour sweep through the entire franchise to coincide with its reboot after 25 years. This one looks very specifically at the character of Nancy Thompson and at Langenkamp herself, as she reengages with the character and the franchise just ahead of its silver anniversary and struggles with her part in its legacy. It's a far more personal approach that appears to be insubstantial fluff for most of its running time, but has substance waiting to creep in as it moves forward. It even has a story arc, as we follow Langenkamp on what could fairly be called a voyage of discovery without hyperbole.

After a well set up opening, in which Freddy Krueger pops in the VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street for us to see video clips of how he's affected popular culture, and the opening credits, which unfold neatly through the assistance of Langenkamp, her silver Sharpie and a set of 8x10s, we settle in to the first of three acts. This one appears to be the most insubstantial, but it's highlighting how far out of the picture she'd actually got. We're at the superbly named Clandestine Rabbit, where a tattoo artist called Twelve is inking Freddy Krueger onto the leg of a horror nut, Mikey Rotella. No doubt you're wondering why I'm including all this detail, but it's to highlight how I was wondering why the movie includes all this detail as it was doing so. Initially it appears that it's only because Rotella works at AFX Studio and thus has a direct connection to Langenkamp, his boss, who pops in to watch. Only later do we realise that it's the quirk of circumstance that brought her into contact with the legacy of her character.

In and amongst meandering discussions with Rotella and others, we get to why the entire 'It Began with a Tattoo' section is included. It's just to point out that everyone in horror fandom cares about Freddy while nobody cares about Nancy. Like duh. To Langenkamp's credit, her disappointment is clear but not overt and she merely comes off a little whiny as she asks questions like whether Rotella would follow up with a Nancy tattoo and gets awkward silences in response. This sort of thing continues on throughout the film, but especially this early third, as she goes out on tour to celebrate 25 years of A Nightmare on Elm Street with six cons in three countries. We continue to wonder how substantial this material is as we discover a lot more about conventions in general than we do about either Heather or Nancy and not much of it is particularly new to anyone who's ever attended one. Do we care that some dedicated fans fly out from Kuwait to see the stars, or that one man sold plasma for eight weeks to finance his trip?
There's a lot more character here than substance, but the character is on the other side of the table to what we might expect in a film called I am Nancy. Langenkamp appears to be discovering this world or at least questioning it for the first time, while joking that her career might have been more substantial had Nancy's wardrobe been more revealing, but that's about it. Her character shows mostly in how she handles the disappointing answers to her questions about Nancy's, and by extension her, impact on the world and in how the editing of the movie demonstrates a notable sense of humour. There's a running joke about how the merchandising is clearly centred around Freddy Krueger, whether it's brought to her table to sign or whether she's asking the event vendors. There's a wonderful moment where she finally discovers a Nancy toy, the 2008 one from Mezco that depicts the famous bath scene in the first movie, only for the vendor to point out that it's discontinued and the editing to cut into a comedy skit.

And so on it goes. Freddy gets the merchandise; Robert Englund gets the applause and the lines. Nancy may have been an important character in the original film and the series, but Langenkamp seems to be an extra in the minds of the fans. To be fair, so are many of the other celebrities manning tables but this isn't their film. What unfolds is sad and depressing, but lightened considerably by the clever editing and Langenkamp's quips, such as when she suggests to one attendee that her signing a Freddy action figure may decrease its value. These moments are often simultaneously funny and sad, especially as there's a truth in the quips; Langenkamp is only half kidding. I enjoyed these scenes, which are often personable and engaging, but, even as I enjoyed them, I wondered why we were being consistently hammered over the head with the same point. We get it! Few remember the heroes in horror movies; the villains are the iconic ones who return time after time and so dominate our memories.

Ironically, for perhaps three quarters of an hour, Langenkamp does little to suggest that we'll remember her here either, in a movie which, after all, is supposedly all about her. We're more likely to remember some of the fans who come up to her table, even if they often do so because they have nothing else to do while they wait for their number to come up in Robert Englund's line. Some are memorable because they're odd, like the girl who takes pictures of herself with celery or the guy whose girl is moving out at that very moment; others are memorable because they're different, like the deaf girl or the amputee in a wheelchair. Again, their scenes are enjoyable, highlighting the diversity of conventions and breaking the stereotypical view of them, but they don't seem to have any real purpose in this film. At least some of these scenes are phrased in an interesting way, such as the neatly edited responses to the question of how old people were when they first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street. How low can they go?

The substance starts to arrive in the third act, as Langenkamp talks with other key players in the series: its star, Robert Englund, and its creator, Wes Craven. Englund is lucid and interesting, though grounded enough to highlight the nerd sin his former co-star is committing by ripping open her new purchases so he can sign the figures rather than the boxes. Craven, who wrote and directed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and whose involvement in the ensuing series was restricted to the same three movies she starred in, is still more insightful, expounding on the philosophy that underpinned the film. There's even a neat anecdote to explain Nancy's derivation; watching an earlier Wes Craven movie, Swamp Thing, his daughter Jessica was upset that Adrienne Barbeau tripped while being chased. She asked him why girls always tripped and he took it to heart, writing a strong female hero for A Nightmare on Elm Street, able to stand up and face truth and fear. It's a feminist reading of an anomalous character in '80s horror.
And here, finally, is where this documentary finds its feet and adds some perspective to all that's gone before. One of the toughest human truths, explains Craven, is that you can only save yourself and that spirit is what both Nancy Thompson and Heather Langenkamp epitomise in these movies. This is a far different legacy to that of Freddy Krueger but it's a fundamentally more important one, as we soon see manifested in the form of Jude, the convention goer in a wheelchair. Parts of her story are reminiscent of Freddy's (she came back from being clinically dead after a car accident that left her in need of skin grafts), but she turns out to be the personification of Nancy instead. The surprisingly cheerful take she has on a horrific event brings tears to Langenkamp as she listens to the mirror image of her character, summing up what Nancy Thompson's legacy is in a single, emphatic sentence: 'You just have to face it, man!' Langenkamp has described it since as 'a mantra of strength'.

This scene has clearly stayed with her and she's called it out in interviews. 'It's the best part,' she told Steven Murray at BellaOnline, 'It's the very, very best part.' Not only is it the best part but it's precisely what I am Nancy needed. In one scene, Jude gives the entire film a purpose and explains to us why the structure was so strange. You can't begin a voyage of discovery with the discovery; you have to find a starting point and work your way to it. So it went for Heather Langenkamp, a minor celebrity interested in finding her part in the legacy of a film she made decades earlier and which refuses to die. She doesn't find what she wants, though perhaps she finds what she expects, until we get to Jude and everything she's learned up until that point is rocked. No, Nancy is never going to get the attention that Freddy gets, but she has changed people in startling ways and the title of the film gains a double meaning. It's true that Langenkamp is Nancy, but as she finds, she's not the only one. I am Nancy, indeed.

Important Sources:
Heather Langenkamp - I am Nancy blog entries, especially Freddy on My Street.
Steven Casey Murray - Heather Langenkamp Interview at BellaOnline.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was lucky enough to interview Heather a while ago,
Find out who she described as “Nicer and more wonderful than so many men that you would ever meet, I mean he just had a sincerity and honesty about him that was and still is, I think, very rare."
Read more at http://retroladyland.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/dont-go-to-sleep-retro-ladyland-has.html