No horror fan needs to be introduced to the likes of Robert Englund (born Robert Barton Englund, 6 June 1947, Glendale), a name which in the collective imagery has become synonymous with so many different and varied aspects of the genre that he has left a deep and undeniable mark on. Needless to say, the thread holding together Englund’s celluloid persona is streaked with red and dark green, but the Californian actor could also resonate with many for the work he did with Tobe Hooper (the two collaborated four times, the last of which being for Hooper’s season 1 episode of Masters of Horror, “Dance of the Dead”, 2005); his participation in ’90s items such as Urban Legend (1998), Strangeland (1998), and Wishmaster (1997); his previous work, during a time in which Freddy was still taking shape in the mind of Wes Craven, including Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror (1981); or his recurring role as “Willie” in the TV series V (1983–1985).
Some might have discovered him through his more recent campy and grindhouse-inspired flicks like 2001 Maniacs (2005), Zombie Strippers (2008), or The Funhouse Massacre (2015). What is safe to say does not jump to mind when thinking of the classically trained performer and bona fide horror icon is the politically aware social commentaries of ’70s American cinema, but this is in fact where everything began for Englund. He started developing his love for acting at a very early age, and as a young man he attended the prestigious UCLA, though he dropped out after three years.
Englund continued his training at Meadow Brook theatre, which at the time was a branch of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University. It is in this stage of his life, during those years as a struggling stage actor, hungry for work and recognition, that the beginning of our interview focuses on, and in which hopefully some light will be shed on several of the few areas left unexplored in a career spanning five decades.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe at the beginning of your career, as a stage actor, you even worked on some plays by Chekhov. Is that so?
Robert Englund: Wow, this brings me back decades. I did do Chekhov, one play, although I remember it as a very positive experience. When I left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, I mostly did theatre and I landed a small part in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. I believe I played a servant. You know, I didn’t have many lines, I was a bit more than an extra, but I was also the understudy for a much bigger part in it, so it was definitely a significant little experience for me. We even briefly brought the play to Broadway.
You made your film debut in the early ’70s, in the midst of the Hollywood Revolution that was profoundly changing the American cinematic landscape.
Robert Englund: Correct! My very first feature-length movie was in 1973 and was titled Buster and Billie (1974) by Daniel Petrie, who directed the great, classic, African-American, family-based movie in the mid-’50s, A Raisin in the Sun. Petrie created a Hollywood dynasty, his sons Donald and Daniel Jr. are established writers and directors within the industry. This was my debut. So, I was around in those years; I could definitely smell the atmosphere, it was impossible not to. And I met and worked with many of the top players of that time. Bob Rafelson, for example, Five Easy Pieces (1970), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)… you know, author of some of the great American portraits of the ’70s. He was the one who gave me one of my first really juicy roles in Stay Hungry (1976), his last big hit of that decade. I found myself sharing the scene with Academy Award-winning actors such as Jeff Bridges and Sally Fields; it was also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s second film after his recent debut in Robert Altman's The Long Farewell. Joanna Cassidy was in it, Scatman Crothers… all of us, veterans and new, up-and-coming talent, young and old, together in the heart of Alabama, telling the story of Jimmy Carter’s new American South. It was also the first film to talk about gyms—gymnasiums and the culture surrounding them. Before all the (he sings), “Let’s get physical, physical!”… Long before all that. This was the first film to tap into that, to intercept this rising trend.
I’m never asked this, but yes, I was there, and was part of the great American renaissance of American cinema. I would go to dinners, parties, and the nerd at them would be Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. I met all the girls, the muses that would connect people, Margot Kidder or Jennifer Salt from Sisters, De Palma’s film. They were these pale, hairy, and nerdy men, very concentrated, very dedicated, but I loved their work because I had seen Mean Streets (1973), I knew about Duel (1971). I was keeping up to date with what these guys were doing, you see.
Buster and Billie was made by the same crew that made a small independent film called The Sugarland Express (1974). The same crew, except for Vilmos Zsigmond, of course. Although our cinematographer was Mario Tosi, who had been a camera operator for Federico Fellini. At the time there was also this big bridge between the States and the Old Continent. All this was an exhilarating and exciting beginning for an actor; you couldn’t ask for anything better, and in fact if anything this spoiled me. I was spoiled, not by my father and my mother, no, but by ’70s American cinema.
In addition to Rafelson, you were directed by some of the most significant names of the period. You used the term “spoiled,” but did this, later on, create problems for you? Did it create standards too high to maintain?
Robert Englund: Consider that over a relatively brief period I was directed by names such as Robert Aldrich, J. Lee Thompson, John Milius. It was quite simply paradise for me and an unrepeatable school for an actor hungry for knowledge. Then television came in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I think the first thing I did for television dates back to 1978… if I'm not mistaken. A completely different way to work clearly and certainly, when you have wet your lips with personalities and projects of the caliber I began with, your dream is inevitably to continue like that for the rest of your career, which is unlikely, if not impossible; but I consider myself very privileged to have participated in my own little way, in that magical moment of American cinema, the great golden renaissance.
In your mind, what brought about the end of this magical moment?
Robert Englund: Well, a combination of things, I believe. The success of Jaws (1975) created the "summer blockbuster" phenomenon. Everybody wants a blockbuster! Then Dennis Hopper went to Peru to make his film The Last Movie and brought with him all the independent money from Universal, from the other directors affiliated with the studio. They were so disappointed and the film did so poorly that this dried up independent financing, it really hurt the credibility of auteurs. Of course, there were many factors that played a role, but these for me come to mind and this brought us to the Hollywood that came after and that in many ways still exists.
It is also in the ’70s that you “encounter” the horror genre for the first time with Eaten Alive (1976) by Tobe Hooper, a recurring figure in your career.
Robert Englund: That film had a really incredible cast: Carolyn Jones, Mel Ferrer, Neville Brand, and Stuart Whitman. With Tobe I immediately found myself very well, from all points of view. He is a very generous director and it is easy to work with him. He leaves you room to maneuver and explore various possibilities. Then that film had some really incredible sets: the swamp, the hotel all built in the studio with a great eye for detail. That’s all Tobe: the attention to detail in the production design, which in that film is also an extension of the world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). I mean, as you know, while Leatherface is chasing people with a chainsaw a few kilometers away, Neville Brand is feeding people to his crocodile. Tobe created a very recognizable world. Eaten Alive, among other things, as you know, is highly appreciated by Mr. Quentin Tarantino, who, in Kill Bill (2003), mentions it… "I'm Buck and I’m here to fuck!" (laughs)
Beyond simple blood and gore, do you find that the horror genre of the ’70s compared to the current one was more cynical, less reassuring, and therefore also angrier—injected with extra rage?
Robert Englund: You know, from the mid-’80s until recently, the United States, for a whole variety of reasons—some good and some bad—America has been an incredible economic powerhouse, and the directors who were born artistically in this period did not have difficulties in finding money, for example, which we had in the ’70s. Things might have been cheaper in a way, but we had no money, and to make your film look good you had to sweat a lot more. Plus, that generation of directors grew with fear: they were born after a world war, they were brought up in a time in which the television was telling Americans that the communists wanted them dead, and by the time they were nearly adults the Vietnam war was raging, people were being shot, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy… it was a long season of killings.
Generations to come were not brought up with that sort of fear. It was definitely a more cynical period. But I would like to add that cynicism, if used well, is a healthy balance to optimism, of course, but also to right-wing beliefs, to liberal political correctness. There is what we can call a healthy cynicism. Then going back to the horror genre, though this applies to all genres in reality, the stories that were told once had their roots in the characters, they were more humanist in the narrative structure, in the psychologies, which makes any story much more frightening because it becomes more realistic. I'm not sure why this has changed, but I think it has to do with that fact we choose heroes and heroines, and by nature these kind of characters live on the surface of who they are, more so than in the interior dynamics of who they really are. I understand this need, but there needs to be the balance which is lacking today.
Think of films like the French one with Juliette Binoche entitled Summer Hours (2009), or a small English film like Fish Tank (2008), and then we all know the Swedish Let the Right One In (2008): these did not have a particularly large audience and yet in the ’70s there would have been a line around the cinema to go and see them. The positive thing now is that thanks to technology, none of these films will disappear, thanks to DVDs, cable networks, Netflix... and who knows, they might even reach a bigger audience still than the movies of the ’70s. But then this entails another problem, the lag time that kills a lot of artists.
An example: my business manager, a very successful business manager, made this film Suicide Kings (1997), a wonderful little flick…it took ten years for that film to find its audience, to reach its cult status. He finally got his check, made his money back, and many of the actors in the film have become stars in the meantime—but ten years. He happened on cable television, younger people started catching on, they liked it; it’s a cool movie, but that just drives me crazy. It was always a good movie; you know it had a terrific script. It has a little Tarantino going for it, a bit of a subtle mafia thing working under the surface, there is this sort of godfather for these spoiled rich white kids. I love that shit. Yet it took so long to pick up, because the distribution didn’t believe in it or people didn’t dig it, I don’t know… These periods are so dilated that they kill the creativity and careers of many young artists, because many good films take years and years to be rediscovered. This is a strange and chaotic period.
I’m thinking, did you have, or should I say suffer from this mechanism you describe, this retroactive success? I’m trying to link it to your filmography.
Robert Englund: In a way, yes. I could mention The Mangler (1995) by Tobe Hooper. That is a film that was released, did what it had to do, and was archived: had mixed reviews, wasn’t a flop, but wasn’t a success, either. Then in the early 2000s it started popping up again on cable TV for some reason and again this set in motion a reinvigorated interest for the film and Stephen King’s novella. Right away they put into production a couple of direct-to-video sequels. You never know what will remerge from the swamps of cinema.
The situation you illustrated previously about the state of cinema and specifically young directors is much worse in some European countries.
Robert Englund: I know, I know. Take Italy for example: Mario Bava, Dario Argento... Italian horror cinema is an integral part of the experience and growth of any fan of the genre. Horror cinema has had an incredible boom in recent years, in fact starting from the beginning of the millennium. Look at Let the Right One In or one goes back to a small Canadian film like Ginger Snaps (2000); it made a lot of money, especially considering its budget. There has been an amazing boom in fantasy and horror. It’s the period of the Avatars. People want to lose themselves in these kind of realities. Italy is missing from all this. Young Italian directors deserve the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Argento and Bava. They deserve a piece of the pie. The rules must be overturned, perhaps returning to the way things were done in the ’70s, the co-productions with Spain. Fuck, Italian cinema must be reinvigorated with money and success. Let’s do whatever it fucking takes. Did you know what one of my absolute favorite films is? Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) by the Taviani brothers. Italy has to regain its self-esteem. Spanish cinema is rising again, just to see how many international stars it is churning out exactly like Italy did 20, 30 years ago.
What fascinated people so much about the Italian films of that time is that they were universal while at the same time being uniquely Italian. Suspiria (1977): anybody can appreciate that film no matter where they come from, yet it is completely Italian and you recognize that. The Japanese managed to resolve the problem by really putting money into projects that might seem risky, but ultimately made Japanese cinema great again. I’m always asking my friend Mick Garris to keep his eye on the lookout for new, fresh talent. I go to a lot of festivals, all over the world, and I can say there are, you know, some little undiscovered Tim Burtons sprinkled all over the place. Anyway, I’ve always had a strong link to Italy; for some time Umbria was my favorite thing and not only for the wine and the olive oil, but I’m a great lover of the gothic and the medieval. Plus, it’s ridiculously green there, so green. Speaking internationally, in Spain for the past decade we’ve been seeing more and more actors and directors crossing over, become increasingly famous worldwide, exactly like the Italians stars did in the ’50s , ’60s , and ’70s, going to America and back and forth. We live in a global society now, but cinema-wise many things still have to be corrected: taxes, distribution laws, co-productions, incentives… From this point of view the ’70s were probably easier.
You directed 976-Evil (1988). The film was, I think it’s safe to say, quite unlucky, but it has found its niche, its following. Tell me a bit about your approach to that film. Do you consider it a typical product of the ’80s?
Robert Englund: 976-Evil is very much tied to the ’80s, but at the same time it is, I feel, reminiscent of the horror films of the previous decade. Actually, to be precise, although it was released towards the end of the ’80s, its spirit is tied to that whole movement of the first half of the decade. That extra rage we mentioned of the seventies is still alive, although different, even in the early eighties. Take even the character of Freddy Krueger: it became a more humorous character, more slapstick if you will, as we get closer to the ’90s , but it wasn’t so when Wes conceived the film. The perverse, even sexual charge of the character is there in all its perverse glory, so my film is part of that movement. Now, I’ve had a few drinks… but I remember distinctly trying to infuse the film with a precise kind of symmetry and I was inspired by a small horror film, possibly European, probably from the ’70s . I tried to give my master shots a symmetry to them, a certain eerie geometry. Eerie, but also cluttered… I wanted to romanticize this Americana-like proletariat. The Sandy Dennis character is pure southern gothic, but I mean also in the set design. I was also interested in capturing this fragmented, damaged American home like something out of Tennessee Williams or Elia Kazan… Looking up to the older brother like in All Fall Down (1962) with Warren Beatty.
It’s funny because you are mentioning names and narrative archetypes of American cinema that helped forge the Hollywood Revolution.
Robert Englund: Yes, there is that southern gothic vibe which one might associate with the films of Robert Aldrich, for example. The fights and anguish that ultimately leads to the devil. But I wanted to picture that escalation. As I always say, family can be the best thing in your life or the absolute worst. People used to criticize me because I’m an only child, I have no brothers or sisters and I recognize I have flaws because of that, but on the other hand I know a lot of people, talented individuals, that suffered a great deal because of the comparison they had to suffer with particularly handsome, or popular and successful siblings. They end up living in their shadow and I’ve met many, many people that were damaged by that as well. But going back to the film—with Paul Elliott, my cinematographer, we wanted it to look like a bigger film than what it was, we wanted it to look like a film, but I also wanted to give it a saturated color, not in the same vein of Hammer, but more tied to American horror, films like The Changeling (1980) with George C. Scott. It had to have an aesthetic that said something about the mutation occurring within the characters. As I said, it’s about the working class, which is not the socio-economic family setting popular in ’80s horror, so I guess again we go back to the ’70s in a way.
Speaking more broadly, is it safe to say that you’ve had an ambivalent relationship with the director’s chair?
Robert Englund: Well, I don't consider myself a director. I am an actor, a prolific one, and I go where they call me. After 976-Evil I was very busy, I had been before. I managed to squeeze that film in and then in the ’90s I tried to take my career in different directions. I started making films in Europe and I also began to vary genres more. You know, to make a film as a director takes a lot of time, even years, and maybe I don't even have that sort of energy anymore. I directed a small teen movie titled Killer Pad in 2008, I had directed a few episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares, soon after 976… Although actually as a director I think I am more suited to stories about personal dramas. I am a horror fan and I owe everything to this genre, but as a director my strengths are the script, casting, and art direction; working with special effects stresses me. In a sense, the films that I would ideally like to make, being behind the camera, are those films that have the typical sensitivity of the ’70s , as we said before.
And here is the cue to go back to Italy, because actually at one point you were close to directing a film on Italian soil. I’m talking about The Vij.
Robert Englund: Yes, that’s true, it was a story based on a Russian legend and it focused on this angel of pure evil, this exact opposite of the mainstream idea of what an angel is. The script was excellent and at that time we had found everything we needed: locations, actors. It was supposed to have been produced by Loris Curci, and yes, we were planning to shoot in Italy. All the performers we contacted were on board right away and they were really enthusiastic; we had Donald Sutherland, Christopher Lee, Amanda Plummer, and Italian actor Raoul Bova. I was going to cut out a little cameo role for myself. We were set and then… you know, cinema is never easy—until your film is being screened in front of an audience in an actual cinema theater, anything can happen.
During this whole interview we have hardly mentioned your most iconic character. We are not going to dig into that now, but I would like to ask you: in your mind, what have you become over the past decade? After 20 years of Freddy, in films, TV spots, series, MTV specials, shows, music videos… How do you fit in the panorama of horror now?
Robert Englund: Since I’ve freed myself from Freddy Krueger in 2003, the year in which I played him for the last time, in Freddy vs. Jason, I’ve become somewhat of a Vincent Price-like character. I do a lot of horror comedies, a lot of over-the-top roles: evil princes, mad scientists, bad fathers, there are a lot of Klaus Kinski-type roles as well, which are a lot of fun to play. And it’s an honor to be associated, like some have, with the royalty of horror, personas such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney. It couldn’t be but a great honor and privilege to be enshrined in the horror hall of fame with these greats of the past, and if this has happened of course it’s because of Freddy, and the fact I’ve played him for so many years. So yes, I’m this Kinski-esque, Vincent Price-like presence in eccentric roles and films, working in films both American and European, and that is fine with me!
[Image Credit: Top image is from DVD Talk.]