“Horror Has Always Been Around”: Robert Englund on ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ Playing Bad Guys the Right Way, and His New Movie ‘Nightworld’

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I’m talking about bookstores in LA with actor Robert Englund after he picks up the phone for our interview. “Are you a big reader?” I ask him. “If I wasn’t an actor, I’d probably be teaching contemporary literature somewhere.” It’s not what you’d expect from the Nightmare on Elm Street star who played the terrifying child murderer Freddy Krueger in the iconic horror franchise that started during the ‘80s and lasted well into the 2000s.

But Englund is hardly a maniac in a dirty brown fedora, brandishing a glove with razors for fingers. He’s wise, sharp, and a wonderful storyteller who can hold an engaging conversation about everything from Dostoyevsky, to the history of the conquistadors. Englund spends a lot of his time lately as a voice actor for different animated series and videogames. He’s been steadily appearing in films since the early ‘70s and has a new movie out this week called Nigthtworld. He plays, what he describes as, a “Van Helsing-ish” character who helps a former LAPD officer investigate the strange occurrences in a sinister apartment building in Bulgaria’s capital.

We talk more about Nightworld, Englund’s reflections on his famously frightening character Freddy, and more, below.

Flavorwire: Your background is in theater. I’m kind of obsessed with the 19th-century Grand Guignol productions. The shows were very avant-garde, very graphic, violent, and wild. Do you have any affection for this time period? I can see you fitting in quite naturally.

Robert Englund: I love the way it’s been depicted occasionally, like in Penny Dreadful, one of my favorite recents. I think there’s some old Vincent Price movies that reference it. I’ve had to defend horror movies when they were criticized in their renaissance in the ‘80s. I use [references to the Grand Guignol] as a defense quite a lot, to let people know that horror has always been around. It has always been fascinating to audiences, and it’s nothing new.

Also, I did one of the remakes of Phantom of the Opera with Bill Nighy, so I did a lot of research on that. Gaston Leroux wrote that book, which was an international bestseller at the time. I believe it was printed in more languages than any other book, except the Bible. This was before the Lon Chaney film. The book was like the Stephen King of the 19th century. And then there’s Edgar Allan Poe, the Grand Guignol, and all of the others.

For a while, [horror] came in cycles — although there was always a horror classic or a horror movie per year. Now, it’s almost like we get the dark stuff monthly. When you look at the top ten movies, there’s always a surprise horror movie that works its way in — some that fly under the radar and you discover them through on-demand and others that actually break out, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I have a little bit of hindsight on it now. If something is good or original, it does eventually get discovered. It can take a while, but it will rise to the surface. It’s interesting how a different generation can find something older, or an older generation can find something very new, hip, and original that they discover and enjoy. There’s this great back and forth. One of the happy accidents of my career is I’m almost on my third generation of fans now.

Do you see horror fitting in with political cycles too? It sometimes seems very tied to our political climate.

If you look at the television series Hannibal, I think there was a political import to that in a very subtle way, but mostly I see science fiction picking up the mantle for message — political, social, or otherwise. The social commentary that I’ve seen the most in horror certainly has dealt with the gay community. It’s hinted at a lot, but I’ve seen that overtly as far back as the Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve film The Hunger and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. In fact, there’s PhD papers written about the gay power struggle in that film and Freddy representing the guilt of the boy and all of that. I think horror manifests itself that way. Vampires especially lend themselves to horror, because they’ve been around so long, and they’ve experienced all of the aspects of humanity. It’s literally in their blood. Sci-fi is dealing with environmental and political concerns, government paranoia, and things like that. Occasionally, you see it in horror. You also see some horror that deals with religion and plays with that, attacks it, and also supports it — but it’s mostly sci-fi that responds politically.

Genre cinema, horror specifically, has been a big part of your career. You worked with some of the greats like Tobe Hooper, Roger Corman, and Wes Craven. What was it like working so closely with them?

Wes and Tobe were brilliant. They were the best people to have dinner with. Wes Craven lived perched above Hollywood in Steve McQueen’s old bachelor pad. You’d go over to Wes’ house, and there was always a great new, strange record of some exotic international music, some old blues that he was listening to, or some phenomenal art coffee table book he had just discovered, whether it was tribal tattoos, architecture, or H. R. Giger. Wes was just a polyglot and into everything.

I can remember I was on location with Tobe in Tel Aviv. This was when Clinton was president, everybody was getting along, and there was hope for some settlement with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. We were hanging out in a great, beautiful Arab neighborhood at the beach. I was sitting with Tobe, and there was a shelf of rock out in the water at the southern end of old Haifa, just south of the fabulous beaches of Tel Aviv. He started to talk about the rock out there. It was apparently historically where Andromeda was chained. This is when the Greeks were there, before the Romans and people like Cleopatra were there. That’s how ancient it was — and Tobe just knew all this stuff.

We were at a party, and we went down to the wine cellar. Tobe was looking around, and he told the Israeli guy that he thought his wine cellar, which he dug into his basement to take advantage of the dampness and cool air, was a catacomb. By the end of the movie that we were shooting, the guy had actually found a Crusader sword in his wine cellar, and Tobe was responsible for that. He was just that smart and just that wonderful, with his big, funny, deep voice, chain-smoking Sherman’s cigarettes.

I’m glad you brought his name up, because you’re the first journalist I’ve really had the opportunity to really talk about it with. I’ve been doing a lot of voice work the past few months, and I haven’t really shared my stories. Losing Wes last year and then Tobe this year . . . it’s the one-two punch. Between the two of those guys I did, I think, seven or eight movies.

Robert Englund in ‘V: The Final Battle’

A lot of your work is based on a dichotomy — characters that have two sides to them. Willie was a Visitor who sides with the human resistance, for example. Even Freddy’s backstory reveals some innocence. These characters are fantastical, yet very human. I know you specifically sought out contrasting characters when you chose to play Freddy, but was finding that dichotomy in all your characters important to you?

I’m just an old character actor. I’m drawn to, probably now, the role first. Is it something I can sink my teeth into and not embarrass myself? It’s probably smart to go off and do a low-budget horror movie in Europe as opposed to guest star on ER, because on ER there’s 14 characters making $600,000-a-week salaries. Try to get into a close-up with George Clooney, and you’re going to wind up on the cutting room floor. Even though ER is a quality show, and I enjoyed it and had friends on it, I’d rather go off and star in a B-horror movie in Spain, Italy, or Germany somewhere, because I’m the star or co-star, and I’m going to get more film time.

Sometimes it’s just about working with the directors, so I’m obviously going to say yes to a Wes Craven, a Tobe Hooper, a Dwight Little, or a Bob Rafelson, even if it’s non-horror. I just finished working with the terrific Alexandre Aja. I loved his film Horns, and he was selected by Wes Craven to do the Hills Have Eyes remake and mentored by Wes. He’s just a wonderful director and worked with great people in Europe. I said yes to a virtual reality project just to work with Alexandre. With the advent of the internet, it makes it easier to do due diligence on a director or a writer. I work with a lot of young Europeans. Lance Henriksen and I discussed this over copious bottles of wine hanging out together. For people Lance’s age and my age, when we start a low-budget genre movie or independent movie, we’re treated as equals with the director. They respect us. I have lots of creative input about my blocking, my character, my wardrobe, and even dialogue.

If I’m doing an A-list movie, oftentimes they try to jam it all into three or four days. You’re a little bit rushed. You’re in, and you’re out. It didn’t use to be that way. You’d get hired for the whole movie sometimes. You’d be on location for six weeks, and you could watch and learn. They just don’t work like that anymore, because it’s cost-prohibitive.

Sometimes my instinct is about location. Sometimes we just want to go somewhere we haven’t been before. We hope that the movie is good as it is in our mind’s eye. I never say yes to anything I can’t imagine. I’ll say yes to things that are derivative sometimes. I’ll say yes to things that are, perhaps, excessively violent on a silly level. I’ll hope it won’t be too silly or too camp. I hope they’ll find that right edge. When you have successes like Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, horror-comedy is also a valid place to explore as you can see from the success of Sam Raimi and, to some extent, Wes Craven, and others. Sometimes that difficult line of black comedy, they don’t know how to do it — and it is difficult.

I’m not really looking at dichotomy, I guess. That’s fun. That’s always a blessing. Sometimes you find it when you’re preparing for the role, but it’s not my green light, so to speak. When you do have that, and you discover it or it’s inherent in the part, it just makes it richer to play. And you know, you’ve heard this before from other actors, I learned very early that bad guys oftentimes have the best dialogue. There’s more psychology in their dialogue. And you learn it very early not to play the guy bad. A bad guy believes that he’s right. He’s defending that position. I’m always reminding critics and people that the good guys are harder to play. They’re usually having to shoulder a lot of exposition.

I’m old now, and I am paid handsomely to be in genre parts. These are roles that I thought I would not be playing at my age, because that’s not how I started out. I didn’t start out in horror, I started out in comedy. Because of the way my face has aged, I’m sort of a cross between Trevor Howard, a little bit of George C. Scott when he was old, and a little bit of Max von Sydow in my face. I looked like a kid until I was 40, but I came out of the [Freddy] makeup finally in my early 50s. I had aged. This was a face I could take advantage of. It lent itself to the genre work that I was celebrated in. It just became this happy accident of DNA, physiology, timing, being hidden a little bit in my late 30s and 40s, and then arriving as a mature face almost instantly after I was done with the Freddy franchise.

You touched upon humor and the way it can be difficult, like black humor. I wondered how you felt about the way Freddy’s character evolved in the later Nightmare films? There is a lot of humor in some of the movies that feel rather slapstick.

We probably jumped the shark with Nightmare 6. I love Rachel Talalay and that movie. We have 3D sequences, and we were really pushing the popular culture. Roseanne Barre is in that movie and Alice Cooper. We really pushed the edged, but we did it intentionally. There are sequences in that film that are in black and white. There’s sequences in that film where I was, in my mind’s eye, trying to move like the Road Runner, a cartoon, while pushing a wagon or a cart or something. We were channeling all of that, so we certainly jumped the shark there.

I understand Wes’ disappointment. But at that moment of time, New Line Cinema had made a mistake in merchandising A Nightmare on Elm Street a little too young. They never had a hit before. They didn’t know what to do. They hadn’t done a movie like Ninja Turtles yet. It should have been merchandised for dormitory boys, and instead, they merchandised it for kids. We had this crazy, mixed audience. We were such a part of the culture — Johnny Carson and Jay Leno jokes, and Tom Hanks quoting Freddy Krueger in movies. There were cartoons about Freddy and Mad Magazine covers about Freddy. I went online to a lyric website and found Jay-Z lyrics about Freddy Krueger, Eminem lyrics about Freddy Krueger, and Little Wayne lyrics. Pages and pages that I didn’t even know, because I’m just this old white character actor, and I wasn’t listening to cutting-edge rap. I didn’t realize that every third song referenced Freddy Krueger, let alone Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff and their big hit. There’s heavy metal groups that were talking about Freddy Krueger. And there are groups in Europe called Freddy Krueger that are huge in Sweden, Denmark, and places like that. It was just this bizarre moment. That movie was sort of the peak of international Freddy mania.

We took a breather, and then we did Wes Craven’s New Nightmare after that. We brought Wes back in to comment on its impact on the culture, but we were echoing the culture in that movie. We went too far there, but Wes set it all up. Freddy’s cracking jokes in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’s sticking his tongue out of the phone, he’s saying ‘I’m your boyfriend now.’ He’s cutting his fingers off, laughing, and sucking on a cut-off finger, making a joke. He’s putting the girl’s eviscerated face on him, knocking on the door, and doing a kind of ‘Here’s Johnny!’ thing. There’s a lot of humor in part one.

Wes isn’t here to defend himself, but I think Wes grew a little tired of the wisecracks. One of the things that happened with the wisecracks was some of the scenes were shot two ways. Oftentimes, if they were rushing to get the movies edited, some of our editors relied on the Freddy one-liner as a sort of editorial punctuation point. A rimshot. Maybe there was a dark choice, but they didn’t always use the dark choice. If I could go back in a time machine, there’s a couple of places . . . I can think of one in Nightmare 4 where I kill Kincaid, the young black actor [Ken Sagoes] in that film. There was a great dark choice with that death, and it’s still dark, but I think they put a joke in there or something. Sometimes I wish they would have just let it be quiet or let it be dark. I did a kiss of death in one movie that was really great. And I’m not talking about the ‘wanna suck face’ moment. There was another one with a boy. There was a hug of death. I had this piece I would wear; it was an animatronic chest of souls. I hugged him really close and intimate. And it wasn’t so much as sexual as it was I was taking his life into me, his soul into me. It was really creepy and strange.

Nightworld looks interesting to me, because I’m really drawn to movies that take place inside a house, like Dario Argento’s Inferno. I’ve read before that the house is a metaphor for the body in dreams. Those movies tend to hit me in a very primal way.

Nightworld is, I don’t want to say a calmer film, but I think Nightworld is really a ghost story. It’s almost like a ghost revenge tale or a love story . . . the ghost in love manipulates purgatory. That kind of waiting station, you know? And then we bring in the occult aspect. There’s a portal to purgatory, and it’s protected by an ancient organization, maybe passed down like the Knights of the Templar.

I live in Santa Fe part time in New Mexico. They [referring to ancient cultures and the conquistadors] built these tiny rock churches, literally like the size of an outhouse sometimes, on the Santa Fe trail. It goes way back. It has an ancient Spanish-Latin-Jewish influence. I use that [for inspiration]. I’ve seen teenage boys in Walmart Levis and Pendleton shirts speaking and sweeping and putting little orange Crush bottles with dried flowers in the middle of nowhere by these penitente [penitence] churches. And they have an oral tradition. They pass down this Latin-Spanish mixed mass — this dead-language mass.

Nancy and I [Englund’s wife Nancy Booth] were drunk in London once looking for this really ancient pub down where all the journalists hang out on Fleet Street. It’s old, old London. I think it’s the part that burned. One day we got lost and found a Knights of the Templar place. When I work in these fantasy movies, I make it real for me.

Even though I’m the old blind guy [in Nightworld], the old Van Helsing-ish guy that gets called back into the plot to deal with things, it’s not strange to me. I know that organizations, in the past and today, believe in this stuff and serve this belief. You just try to make it as normal as you can, within that context. You find little beats to make people normal — just something that’s human about them, even though they believe in something that we can’t believe in.

Your character looks like a great German Expressionist villain.

I got the right hat.