By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Horror cinema’s classic era is filled with legendary names. Actors such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee defined the genre for generations. Although many horror fans consider the 1980s a golden age for fright films, the gothic style of the classics had given way to lumbering masked slashers. Gory special effects largely supplanted compelling villains and monsters.
However, one ’80s horror actor rose above the fray of anonymous maniacs to take his place in the pantheon of horror greats. By the decade’s end, Robert Englund‘s over-the-top portrayal of brutal child killer turned vengeful dream-stalking demon Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films was firmly and permanently enshrined in pop culture. As interpreted by Englund, Wes Craven’s razor-gloved madman was as familiar a presence in American life as Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.
Of course, that’s the story horrorphiles know. There’s much more to Englund – the actor and the man – than Freddy. With their latest film, HOLLYWOOD DREAMS & NIGHTMARES: THE ROBERT ENGLUND STORY, documentarians Gary Smart and Christopher Griffiths put the spotlight on the totality of Englund’s long career from his beginnings on the stage through his unlikely ascent to pop culture icon and genre elder statesman. Featuring extensive interviews with Englund, his costars and longtime admirers (including directors Eli Roth and Mick Garris and actors Lance Henriksen, Heather Langenkamp, Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley to name a few), HOLLYWOOD DREAMS & NIGHTMARES paints a candid portrait of a working actor thrust to a wholly unexpected level of fame and adoration. Recently, RUE MORGUE sat down with Gary Smart and Christopher Griffiths to discuss their film as well as Robert Englund’s impact on their lives.
What was your first exposure to Robert Englund’s work?
Gary Smart: Mine, obviously, like most people, was A Nightmare on Elm Street. When I was a kid, I was allowed to watch horror films. So at the age of about five or six, I was watching VHS [tapes] of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films and lending them out to my classmates at school. So Robert’s always been there as long as I can remember in regards to posters on bedroom walls and action figures and masks.
CHRISTOPHER GRIFFITHS: It was very much A Nightmare on Elm Street as well. Although quite quickly afterward, I think I saw Stay Hungry, which I’ve always been quite a fan of because of Schwarzenegger. So yeah, that’s probably my earliest introduction to Robert.
I think V was when I first became aware of Robert Englund, but looking back, there are so many films he was in early in his career where he seamlessly blends into the story that you don’t really realize it’s him. How did the Elm Street films affect you? And what’s your favorite Freddy moment?
GS: I have always loved special effects. So even as a kid, I just loved the effects and the makeup of Freddy. So for me, I was never really scared of horror films. I was just looking at how they were made. And obviously, back in the ’80s, you couldn’t really find out [how effects were done] and Fangoria was really hard to get over here. There wasn’t a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.
Freddy moments… Which one? It’s really hard, isn’t it? I mean, it’s always gonna be “Welcome to primetime, bitch,” isn’t it? … and also the puppet-master scene because that was like horrible as a kid. That’s probably the standout and they’re obviously from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which obviously was the one that really kind of changed Freddy.
CG: Oh, man! I gotta have some time to think about this. So my favorite moment? Like Gary, admittedly, A Nightmare on Elm Street didn’t exactly faze me the first time watching. It’s more the creativity of A Nightmare on Elm Street that stands the test of time. They’re just a level above most slashers, even though I love them all.
Strangely, a moment for me with Freddy is actually in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and it’s in Tuesday Knight’s dream … It’s all really cheesy, the whole beach scene with the glove like the shark, but it’s how he steps on her head. And you don’t know what’s coming next … And it’s just that it’s like, oh, so vicious. I found it was a surprisingly dark moment, watching him trample on Tuesday Knight’s head. Like, oh shit, the series is quite dark in places, isn’t it?
What’s Robert’s best non-horror role? Of course, Christopher mentioned Stay Hungry.
GS: It’s gonna be V, and it’s always going to be V. I think a lot of people when they think of Robert, they either think of Elm Street or V. And that was the whole point of the doc – to explore the other stuff. We all know about 2001 Maniacs and Wishmaster. But as soon as Chris started exploring films like Buster and Billy and Stay Hungry, completely different roles of Roberts – more comedic and obviously the sidekick – [that opened up a new side of Robert for us]. So for me, it’s probably V.
CG: I’ll agree with Gary on that as well. I think as much as I love Stay Hungry, it’s the combination of all these different actors, and no one apart from Jeff Bridges and Sally Field have really notable roles – and maybe Schwarzenegger as well. But it’s all just, oh my God, it’s Joe Spinell from Rocky! Oh my God, it’s the Terminator! Oh my God, it’s Freddy Krueger!
In terms of a nonhorror role, it has to be Willie in V . And that’s kind of that thing that’s trending on Twitter at the moment: Show us an actor with a very diverse range of their performances. And really, I don’t think you get more chalk-and-cheese than Freddy and Willie.
A word that’s often overused but definitely applies to Robert is “icon,” which of course was the doc’s original title. Do you think that Robert Englund is the last real horror icon of the caliber of Boris Karloff for example?
GS: When you think of the icons of horror, you always think of, obviously, Chaney, Karloff, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee [and] Vincent Price, and Robert’s right there with them. I know we’ve got Kane Hodder. I know we’ve got Bill Moseley and Sid Haig and Doug Bradley. I get that and they’re brilliant actors, but Robert sits really nicely with Christopher Lee because he’s quite elegant, as we’ve seen in interviews is a very, very intelligent man. He’s very elegant. He likes to travel; He likes the finer things; He likes art. That kind of really helps in regard to that iconic kind of role where he is a different kind of lead [compared] to the masked killers. That has a lot to do with Freddy, of course, because he spoke but also because Robert himself is very elegant, and he can talk and talk and talk. I know we’re getting the likes of Art the Clown now and stuff like that, but 100%, he’s definitely the last iconic horror actor.
CG: Again, I’ll agree with Gary. Hopefully, we showcase that in the documentary, particularly in the latter moments where he’s kind of reflecting on everything and we bring up your Boris Karloffs and Lon Chaneys and whatnot. As Gary said, I think we’ve got so many iconic horror characters now, but no one can replace Freddy Krueger. And people have already played multiple Jasons, Leatherfaces, Michael Myerses, and there are some great actors, and they’ve all embodied their roles without a doubt, but I think it’s how much you can kind of firsthand witness how much Robert Englund has applied himself to the genre, which he alludes to in the documentary. I think he sort of says, “By nurturing this career in horror, I’ve now become the mad scientist.” And you can reflect that with the likes of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing who also played both sides of the coin, have an A in the horror genre.
How did you approach Robert Englund about this project, and how did he react to it?
GS: Obviously, we’ve made a few documentaries in the past … And I’ve been a fan of Robert since I was a little kid. So we had a friend called Mikey Perez, who’s known for documentaries, like Never Sleep Again, More Brains. And I knew Mikey had worked with Robert on Never Sleep Again. There was a connection there. Chris and I were talking about what to do next, and we wanted to do something a little bit different … We were just amazed that nobody had done a documentary on Robert Englund. You know, you had the Kane Hodder one, you had the Bruce Campbell one. The list goes on but never one actually about Robert – when he’s such an icon.
It’s really hard to get ahold of Robert and very, very hard in terms of people trying to get him for things. So we had two avenues available to us. One was his management team and two was his wife, Nancy, because Nancy kind of is the gatekeeper of Robert. If you get through to Nancy, and she likes you, she will introduce you. So I just sent Nancy a really long email about who I was, where I was, from, my background – but not the cliche kind of crap – I kind of put in the letter as well that this was about Robert as an actor and not about Freddy Krueger.
Then, I got an email back from Nancy saying that Robert would like to talk to you at 8 p.m. on Sunday, please send your number to him. I sent my number to him, and then at eight o’clock, suddenly, the phone rings, and it’s Robert. And straightaway, it was like he’d already known us. It wasn’t like a pitch. He got who we were. And he just said, “There’s Never Sleep Again. There are always documentaries on Elm Street. I get the character’s really important, but if you’re going to do this, you’re gonna do it right. You got to look at my career, and I will help you 100%. If it’s about Freddy, I’ll give you an interview. If it’s about Billy and Buster and Stay Hungry … I will be fully engaged.” And we said that’s what we wanted to do; We wanted to explore around the role [of Freddy Krueger]. It just kind of snowballed. He was fully engaged, and we met him in London, and then we met him in the States. We’ve interviewed him four times throughout the journey of the project. That was when it got quite easy. Once we got to Nancy, it became really easy.
At first, we thought it was gonna be really difficult, and it wasn’t. Maybe it was the pitch that we gave because it was from the heart, and we were fans of him as an actor. I think he appreciated that.
CG: The beauty of this project has been about [facing] interesting challenges, whereas every other project has been, okay, we got the lead actor, we got this actor, we got this production personnel. This has actually been about negotiating a relationship with someone and seeing how the interviews changed over time.
GS: They changed. Yeah, the first interview, I asked one question, and three hours later, he stopped talking. And he was very programmed in what he wanted to talk about. The next one was easier. And the fourth one, which Chris did in Sitges, it was very relaxed. Now, Chris could direct him, whereas it was very difficult at the start; It was like Robert was controlling it. Because we became friendly with him, and he got comfortable, we could have that bit of banter…
Robert’s knowledge of the craft of filmmaking really comes out in the documentary. Did he have any input or advice or suggestions for you about the production side of the project?
CG: Well, funny you should say that, actually. As Gary said, our last interview with Robert, we shot at the Sitges Film Festival. So we had already screened the documentary. We had watched it there for the first time, and we were all happy. We were happy with the results. Admittedly, it was quite a rush process to get it over the line, I kind of felt like the second half needed a little bit of work. We kind of meander on some things too long. Well, as it happens, Robert had some views as well. He was like, “If you leave it as is, I’m happy.” But for Robert, it was more just about missing a few films, in particular, The Great Smoky Roadblock with Henry Fonda wasn’t in any of his previous interviews. And as someone who knows and loves film as much as Robert does, I had to ask Gary, “Surely he mentioned he worked with Henry Fonda…” That’s quite a big statement to make. But he hadn’t. So it was actually kind of a mutual agreement amongst all of us. And thank God, I brought my GH5 camera out to Sitges! I had to take a bit of a scotch tape and chewing gum approach of putting my phone in his jacket pocket to use as a mic for that interview.
We extended and altered that second half [about Robert’s career] from the ’90s onwards, not greatly different, but there was nothing in the way of these montages that allowed you to sort of tap into what the lay of the land was at different points of his career … And in terms of developing that relationship with him, whereas you might not want to do that [in the first interview], it was a luxury to just talk about the fact that the ’90s weren’t so great for the slasher genre prior to Scream. All the old heroes of the ’70s and ’80s were fading stars by that point. So to get that opportunity to do that but not in terms of anything dramatic or clickbaity. It’s a bit of honest drama. To be honest, it was very much a blessing for us to actually have that opportunity where we all agreed, okay, cool. Robert, you have your points to land, and we have ours.
Final thoughts. What do you hope audiences get out of HOLLYWOOD DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES?
GS: I think the intention from day one was for people to see beyond the glove and the fedora. This is an iconic actor who is classically trained and has such range. In the doc, Nancy says that sometimes horror actors get frowned upon and looked down on. We wanted to show that Robert is more than just Freddy, and I know Freddy’s awfully central to the documentary because he has to be. Hopefully, you can see this is a man of real talent. We hope, as Brian Cox has recently had with Succession, that Robert gets that kind of renaissance with his career. We’re hopeful it will happen, and maybe Stranger Things will help with that because there’s more to Robert than just Freddy and horror. He can play anything. So hopefully, people can see that.
HOLLYWOOD DREAMS & NIGHTMARES: THE ROBERT ENGLUND STORY is now available to stream on Screambox.