[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
By 1989, Freddy Krueger and actor Robert Englund had become fully woven into the fabric of pop culture, as the Nightmare on Elm Street film series was thriving, Freddy’s Nightmares had completed its first season on TV airwaves, and Englund had even crossed over to the realm of music after rapping on the Fat Boys song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” the previous year. And while all of that is exceedingly impressive, I feel like it was in 1989 when Englund truly came into his own, appearing in both A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Dwight H. Little’s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, with Robert taking the directorial reins on 976-EVIL and also appearing throughout the second season of Freddy’s Nightmares as well.
Make no mistake—in 1989, Robert Englund was EVERYWHERE, and it totally ruled.
It was in March 1989 when Englund’s directorial debut, 976-EVIL, was released in theaters here in the States, starring Stephen Geoffreys as an awkward teenager named Hoax who dials up a 976 number and makes a deal with the devil in order to fulfill his own twisted fantasies. We had previously discussed Englund’s efforts on 976-EVIL on an episode of Corpse Club (you can find out more about that HERE), which is far more in-depth than what I’ll be going into here. But as a whole, 976-EVIL is a fascinatingly quirky noir-infused supernatural slasher hybrid from Englund that embraces its grungy surrealistic aesthetic and delivers up a horror experience that must be seen to be believed (Sony’s 2017 Blu-ray is a great release and features an enthralling commentary with Englund).
While I won’t be so bold as to declare it a masterpiece, I do find 976-EVIL to be a devilishly campy endeavor from Englund that not only pays tribute to his longstanding roots in the genre world, but also his expansive knowledge of classical literature and the arts (Dante’s diner and the El Diablo theater being two of the more overt examples). The film itself also delves into society’s obsession with 900 and 976 hotlines that were all the rage at the time, which was something Robert was very familiar with since his Freddy phone line was very popular (especially in my household).
976-EVIL even makes a few points about the dangers of religious repression, especially amongst teens who are still trying to figure themselves out (and this is also something I was all too familiar with myself growing up). Hoax’s life is dominated by his overbearing mother Lucy (played by legendary actress Sandy Dennis) who spouts off Bible verses at every turn, and I think it’s interesting that at a time when Englund’s Freddy’s Nightmares series found itself in the crosshairs of many religious organizations for being “questionable in its morals,” he was exploring these ideas in 976-EVIL as a director. Plus, the scene with all the tarantulas still gives me the heebie-jeebies (and the film’s nods to Fright Night always tickle my fancy).
And despite all of its flaws, 976-EVIL’s grandiose finale still remains hugely impressive and its ambition is largely unrivaled amongst other low-to-midrange horror movies to come out during that year (I mean, nothing will ever beat Society in WTFery, but this one comes pretty damn close). I’ll never argue that the film is cinematic perfection, but as a whole, 976-EVIL is a grimy oddball effort from Englund that pairs rather nicely with a wonderfully disastrous favorite of mine, the gloriously over-the-top Maximum Overdrive.
Several months later, The Dream Child hit theaters everywhere to cap off the summer movie season, and while it isn’t necessarily my favorite of the Nightmare sequels, it did give us several memorable iterations of Freddy Krueger, including Chef Freddy and Super Freddy (two of my very favorite versions of the horror icon), and I still get giddy whenever either one appears on the screen. Admittedly, Englund’s character relies on the word “bitch” a bit too much in the film, but Freddy does get to dole out a few of his signature catchphrases in Nightmare 5, and Robert seems to be enjoying himself from start to finish, and that kind of enthusiasm is wholly infectious (if you’d like to read Patrick Bromley’s stellar piece on the merits of The Dream Child, you can check it out HERE).
Which brings us to The Phantom of the Opera, which came out in November 1989. Originally a Cannon Films production (which eventually was picked up by 21st Century Film Corporation after Cannon declared bankruptcy), I can vividly remember begging my mom to take me to see this adaptation simply because of Englund’s involvement, and I could not have loved it more. In fact, it’s because of this film that I decided to seek out the original story from Gaston Leroux, and I’ve been obsessed by it for 30 years now (I regularly re-read it every October). And while I am pretty much obsessed with every cinematic take on Phantom, what has always struck me about this rendition is that even though it changes the story’s locale from Paris to London, by and large, this script faithfully taps into the horrific elements of Leroux’s tale in a way I haven’t ever seen done before.
Most filmic interpretations tend to romanticize the character of The Phantom, undoubtedly because of the success of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s long-running musical (which I also adore), but Little’s version goes all in on the horrors of this world, and Englund is absolutely the right performer to bring this manipulating madman to life here. Between Robert’s years of playing Freddy and his training in the theatrical arts, both serve him well in Phantom. Englund is also pretty badass in The Phantom of the Opera, cutting off heads, using a whip and towels to decimate those who try to get in the way of his obsession with singer Christine Day (played here by the delightful and lovely Jill Schoelen), and it’s a physical performance that’s equal parts elegant and brutishly barbarous.
Even through the way he stands or glides through a room, Englund’s carriage in this is so different than whenever we see he him don his trademark red and green sweater and fedora, and his Phantom oozes a cold-blooded charisma despite often being behind a façade of various fake visages. Also, I absolutely love the sequence when the Phantom dehumanizes himself inside his lair, showing us just how monstrous his deformities are and what he’s given up for his art (perhaps there are some underlying parallels here between this character and how Robert was feeling at the time).
We even get several scenes of Englund out of makeup in The Phantom of the Opera for the film’s finale, which takes place in present-day New York (Nightmare 5 also gives us a few fresh-faced Robert moments, too). I know he has made a name for himself over the years for his work where his face was obstructed, but I always enjoyed seeing the “true” Englund here, because he’s an actor I have always found compelling, with or without the utilization of special makeups. That being said, when Little reveals his modern character’s true form, it’s a gruesomely macabre moment that triumphantly brings this Phantom full circle (and for those who may not have seen this, Scream Factory’s Blu is utterly fantastic).
For some fans out there in the late ’80s, “Freddy Fatigue” may have been setting in, especially because the Springwood Slasher was seemingly everywhere, but in 1989, this fan was thrilled beyond words that Robert Englund was such an indelible fixture in entertainment—both on the big and small screens—and we got a chance to see him challenge himself creatively in new ways to boot. Without a doubt, Englund has enjoyed many wonderful years throughout his 40-plus years in Hollywood, but I’d argue that 1989 was by far the most interesting and fruitful period of time of his career.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 1989!