This was a hard decision, but I wanted to include a Wes Craven heroine somewhere on the list, and it was down to Sidney or Nancy when I remembered the only good sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) brought new vigor, and a lot of strong tension to the series that had been basically worn into the ground by all the dumb sequels, while maintaining the spirit of the original.
The movie opens with Heather Langenkamp having a nightmare about yet another sequel, where her husband is the special-effects person, and her small son is watching. Suddenly, Freddy’s hand comes to life and attacks and kills the effects team, including Chase (the husband). She wakes up screaming as an earthquake rattles the house. As her life progresses, Freddy Kruger becomes an omnipresent force in her life from the creepy phonecalls the house keeps getting, to her talk-show interview full of people in costume, to her nightmares, and Dylan’s continued attempts to watch the movie on TV. Things turn deadly when the nightmares spread to Chase and Dylan; Chase falls asleep when he’s driving and Freddy gets him. When Dylan has to go to the hospital after a nasty fall on the playground, the doctor is immediately hostile to Heather because she’s best known for being an actress in horror movies, and aggressively brings up the idea of putting Dylan in foster care.
Frightened, Heather turns to her fellow actors and to Wes Craven. Robert Englund has skipped town for the foreseeable future, and while John Saxon (who played Nancy’s father) is sympathetic, he provides no real help. Wes Craven, however, guiltily admits that the whole mess is probably his fault. The Freddy Kruger following is too strong, which is giving him the power to leave the movie and become an entity in his own right. Craven has been writing a new screenplay about that happening in an attempt to banish him, but he needs Heather to “give Nancy her strength just one more time.” Angry, Heather makes him promise to finish the screenplay, and leaves as he sits back down at the word processor, allowing the nightmare to unfold.
Setting the movie in the “real world” was a clever move on several counts, but especially in creating the heroine. The world of fans, moralizing professionals, and generally unhelpful people is as much of an antagonist as the supernatural menace in Freddy. She is forced to not only defend herself, but also her son who is in double danger from the fact that if she loses custody, he will die because she is the only person who properly knows how to defend him. This ups the stakes, as she deals with the danger, her grief, and her isolation as the people best suited to help her disappear. And she does deal with everything the word processor threw at her almost completely on her own. Happy endings in horror movies are by and large out of fashion now, but when Freddy Kruger is finally defeated, and Heather and Dylan are safe back in the house with the completed screenplay, no one can begrudge them that happy ending. Heather earned it with her blood, sweat, and tears, and both of them amply deserve it.