Interview: Robert Englund
It’s almost Hallowe’en, so it’s time for things to get scary in The Phantom Zone. What better way to kick off our spooky celebrations than with an interview with horror icon, Robert Englund? Owen Williams spoke to the man who made an entire generation afraid to fall asleep.
Robert Englund, star of nearly a hundred movies, eight of which make up one of the biggest horror franchises of all time, turns out to be a garrulous and entertaining interviewee. Far from being touchy about his horror-world typecasting niche or unwilling to discuss Elm Street, he adores his career, loves all his films equally, and is still having a blast in the film industry after more than thirty years. He’s thoroughly down-to-earth and engagingly enthusiastic about a body of work which, to be frank, has often not reached the widest of audiences. A case in point: he’s just been shooting Strippers vs. Werewolves…
Do you ever wish for bigger-budget projects?
I think for these kinds of movies a big budget is often a hindrance in some way. Well maybe not a hindrance, but there was certainly quite a backlash a while ago against ‘big’ horror movies: they became really quite unpopular, whilst little ones like this kind of just kept on doing their thing. I remember, as long ago as the early nineties, having to defend The Silence of the Lambs to Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, because they were really slamming it. And those kinds of high-profile horror-type films still tend not to do well, or at least, are perceived as not doing very well. They make their money back, but they generally don’t perform spectacularly or get well received. Hannibal and Red Dragon, for example. That Omen remake. It’s like that grunge backlash against the big, classic rock bands. Horror does better when it’s bubbling under. It’s a niche. It doesn’t like the limelight.
Do you mind being in that niche?
I kind of go through phases. Not so much anymore. I used to. I did a lot of stuff before I became known for horror. I did a lot of small films in the 70s, in all kinds of styles. I worked with all kinds of people when I was just starting out: I was incredibly lucky. I got to co-star with Susan Sarandon and Henry Fonda (The Last of the Cowboys); I worked with Bob Rafaelson in a film where I co-starred with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field (Stay Hungry); I was the narrator of Big Wednesday, the wonderful surf movie that John Milius made with Gary Busey; I did a lot of TV… The seventies was really a great time in Hollywood: a much less hierarchical time. You could live by the beach for practically nothing, and there was a real kind of ‘scene’ which has kind of gone now: Jaws and Star Wars changed everything. I’ve had Mark Hamill and Gary Busey passed out on my sofa at four in the morning. And it was a better time for experimental and independent movies.
Were you always a horror fan?
I always was. I kind of got snobbish about it when I first started out in theatre. I put it to one side and forgot about it and pretended it was behind me. But I think it was always there really. I remember when I was a really little kid, like maybe five or six, I used to go over to my grandparents’ house with my parents, and they had this coffee table book of photosets from Life magazine. And I used to get there, and go up in the bedroom and like, take off my little jacket, and then I’d go and find this book, which had this section on like the great Hollywood monsters. And I remember it had these beautiful pictures of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein, and it had this big section on Lon Chaney, the ‘man of a thousand faces’, all like really glossily illustrated, and with all these descriptions of his make-up processes; like the way he would use the membranes from eggs and drape them over his eyeball to give himself a milky eye. Stuff like that. And I was just obsessed with this book. So I think the seeds of my later career were sewn right there. I think on some level that’s what got me acting. The roots of my career are right there. I even played The Phantom of the Opera!
Tobin Bell has made his name with the Saw films, but he’s still on record as saying he doesn’t really approve of horror…
I love Tobin. I think he’s a great actor. I’ve been a fan of his since I saw him in The X-Files. He’s like me, he’s been around for years, but the truth is that without Saw nobody would know who the fuck he was. I know who he is, because I’m in the industry, and actors notice other actors like that, but to the general public… pfffff. A lot of actors have that kind of attitude, like horror is beneath them, or its distasteful or whatever. But they always turn out – because this is where the money is.
The thing is, a lot of actors fail in these roles. You can’t take them lightly or be snobbish about them. You have to really embrace them or you’ll fuck up horribly. Look at Robert de Niro in that thing with Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek), or that terrible Frankenstein movie. He’s awful in both of those movies, and he’s Robert De Niro! If horror can defeat someone like Robert De Niro then you’ve gotta start thinking that there’s more to some of these roles and movies than just slumming it for the money. You can’t just coast.
And on the flipside of that, if you play it absolutely right, you can make a really great impression, even if the movie you’re making isn’t all that hot. What’s that thing with Jennifer Lopez? The Cell? Even Jennifer Lopez made a horror movie! But that movie belongs to Vincent D’Onofrio, because he goes after that role so hard. He’s so totally committed. He owns that film.
I’d never knock horror, because of the opportunities it’s given me. I’ve been all over the world, to Italy and Germany and the UK, and Northern Europe and Sweden, and it’s all because I’m Freddy Krueger.
Any more plans to direct?
Not right now. The last thing I directed was a movie called Killer Pad in 2008, which is a little comedy with a great bunch of kids. It had horror elements, because it’s about this kind of Faustian pact that these frat boys sign to get the pad of their dreams, but there was a lot of kind of American Pie style gross-out humour too, which I love.
I had a lot of fun doing that, but directing is kind of not my forte, I’d be the first to admit. I’m good at casting and art direction, and script and camera stuff, but special effects and suspense… less so. I found that out on the first film I directed which was this thing called 976 Evil that I did in 1989. I had a really bad experience with that one because it was taken away in post-production and edited by this guy who came from like commercials and music videos. They cut out a lot of the exposition that I thought was really necessary, and just went for the gore, which I thought was a total mistake that weakened the movie. Editing a movie is like making a sculpture. You kind of chip away at this big block of material, but its tough because you don’t want to discard anything right at the start, because you might need it again later. I think the studio on 976 Evil got rid of a lot of stuff early on that it turned out they needed, but they didn’t care enough to put it back in. The film really doesn’t make much sense as it is now. But the annoying thing is that it did all right! They even made some sequels, although I wasn’t involved.
Killer Pad was a lot more satisfying. I had a lot more control. Not final cut exactly, but I was very much more involved with the producing side as well as the directing – as I had been on Freddy vs. Jason – so I got to stay much more on board in post production.
Speaking of Freddy it’s an obvious question that you must get asked all the time, but what did you think of the remake?
They remake everything now. I tried to be philosophical about it. Jackie Earl Haley is a great actor. But it was disappointing that it killed a couple of other ideas. We were talking with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell about doing another Freddy vs. Jason thing with Ash (from the Evil Dead series), and then for a while it looked like we might do a Michael Myers thing, and John Carpenter was involved. But that all fell through. What I was actually really excited about, was that we got close to doing a prequel with John McNaughton, who made an amazing sort of sub-documentary horror movie called Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. Just extraordinary. So you can imagine what he would have brought to that kind of project. It would have been very down and dirty, and gritty. It would have been the story of Freddy and his origins. It would start with his horrible child murders, and there would be the police investigation, with the corrupt cops and the bungled investigation that nevertheless gets him arrested. Then there’d be a kind of courtroom drama element, and the story of the horrible lawyers that get him acquitted. And it would end with the Elm Street parents taking the revenge that we all know about. There was some of that in the remake, but not like we were planning. That would have been a big one.
Other than Freddy, you’re probably best known as Willie, the friendly alien in V…
I’ll tell you, the only fan of mine that’s ever creeped me out was a V fan. I’ve met all kinds of people that really love Freddy, and that doesn’t bother me at all. I meet them at signings and conventions and they’re just great. I’ve never had a bad experience with a Freddy fan, although the guys with the huge tattoos I think are kind of odd – these beautiful, full-back Yakuza tattoos of Freddy. But I see a lot of cool stuff that I’ve never seen before. Someone recently had an original poster from the original run of Elm Street that has me in the James Bond gun barrel. That must have been some kind of bootleg – Eon would never have licensed it! And I meet Asian fans who have these enormous circus-sized posters with me devouring Patricia Arquette, and they’ve been painted over and added to with amazing artwork and colours. Just beautiful. But yeah, anyway, this V fan was a girl who turned herself into me. She taped her breasts so that she was completely flat-chested, and she permed her hair to be like mine, and she would turn up all over the place, wherever I was appearing. She was a little alarming. I encouraged her with her writing though. I think she’s doing alright now…”
Do you enjoy conventions and signings and the publicity trail?
Absolutely. I especially enjoy doing interviews like this on the phone. It means I can wander round the house in my underwear…
Strippers vs. Werewolves is currently in post-production.