Robert Englund Talks Nightmare on Elm Street El Rey Marathon & Wes Craven Legacy

Robert Englund sits down with us to chat about the legacy of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, its Valentine's marathon, and Wes Craven.

This weekend, Freddy Krueger can be your Valentine. El Rey Network is running the “Rip Your Heart Out” marathon, featuring almost all of the Freddy movies. They’ve got Wes Craven’s original classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as all the sequels up to A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Hell, they’ve even got several episodes of the Freddy’s Nightmares TV series that aired in syndication in the late ‘80s.

Robert Englund, the original Freddy, is hosting the marathon and he was also available for interviews in Los Angeles to discuss the televised debauchery. This gave us a rare chance to go really in depth with the Nightmare movies so many years after he retired from the make-up. The third annual “Rip Your Heart Out” marathon begins at 6AM on Saturday, Feb. 13, and the last film plays after midnight on Valentine’s Day on El Rey.

Why isn’t Zombie Strippers part of this marathon?

Robert Englund: I don’t know. That’s pretty fucking grindhouse. Either that or 2001 Maniacs. I think part of it is that the Nightmare on Elm Street films hold up for everybody. They really stood the test of time. I think also there’s a strange element, it can be twisted, of romance.

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There’s this strange kind of final girl respect and flirtation, and beauty and the beast sexual undercurrent with Freddy and Nancy, and Freddy and Alice—his varying female nemeses—whether it’s Patricia Arquette or whoever else shows up in one of the franchises. So there’s a little bit of that that kind of gives it a Valentine’s “rip your Valentine’s heart out” kind of thing. I think that’s part of it.

It’s also a great alternative, I think. A lot of guys might really want to get high on candy and sugar, and a glass of wine and be a little romantic on Valentine’s, but they don’t want to see The Notebook again. They can’t do that. They can’t take Jennifer Aniston in another rom-com. But they will sit down with their girl or their fiancée, or their wife and hit that See’s Candy, and that bottle of red and binge a little bit. Binge parts four and five, and this is the great thing I’ve been trying to get out there.

I don’t think the Freddy’s Nightmares television series has been seen in a while. It went into some kind of legal limbo for a while. It’s going to be really fun to binge. You’re going to see Brad Pitt, you’re going to see Mariska Hargitay, you’re going to see Lori Petty, all these amazing actors showing up and amazing directors who’ve gone on to do great things and cameramen. My crack crew, I directed several of the episodes, but this was the first ballsy edgy television, with the exception of Twin Peaks, to really push the envelope.

I’m glad Freddy’s Nightmares is being shown in the marathon. “Sister’s Keeper” was the best episode, right?

Also the pilot’s great. There’s been talks for years about a great prequel script floating around. One time, the story was that the great John McNaughton, who directed Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer starring the wonderful Michael Rooker, was going to direct it in kind of a docudrama style. Fred Krueger, the first kill.

In fact, I think in that script, the stars were really the lawyers that get Freddy out of jail. They’re just these really bad ambulance chasing lawyers, and you’d see Freddy without the make-up. I wanted to do this but in the pilot for Freddy’s Nightmares, directed by Tobe Hooper, there’s some really interesting backstory. It’s fun, you really see some twisted stuff. So I want to watch it. I haven’t seen that for a long, long time.

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I’ve been building a new website and I went down into some wormholes on the Internet. Every time it says, “Do you want to see more images?” after I pick an image off a scroll, I’ve been clicking on that, and I keep going deeper and deeper in. I actually found some great set stills from the Tobe Hooper pilot of Freddy’s Nightmares, really great stuff that I’m putting on my website so I’m anxious to see that again.

It must be bittersweet to talk about Nightmare in depth after Wes Craven passed. Did he ever talk to you about doing any of his non Freddy movies? Maybe a part in Scream?

Well, I was sort of hoping to get a call for the new series Scream that he was developing, but no. I think Wes, just because Nightmare on Elm Street was so huge, and there was so much baggage with the both of us, and he had such a great, pure idea of the deconstructed meta aspect that Scream was going to have of the fans, by the fans, for the fans, really turning it on its head, that I think he wanted to keep me away from that franchise.

I got the call immediately for his series. That’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done, for Nightmare Cafe, with the wonderful Jack Coleman and Lindsay Frost. My God, we had great episodes of that. Angela Bassett was on that show. There was a great standup comic who did one that was about the tabloids, Bobby Slayton. I directed many episodes of that too, but that was just a great show.

My memory of Wes, I’ve only done this at one of the tributes, but the story I wanted to tell everybody, and I had to miss several tributes because I’ve been working, Wes came to my apartment by Stanley Park in Vancouver, after a long day of shooting on Nightmare Cafe. Jack Coleman was there, and Lindsay was there, and my wife and my dog. We were watching Saturday Night Live and we were all a little drunk. We’d been drinking since nine o’clock at night and it’s 11:30.

There was a sketch with Dana [Carvey], “Head Wound Harry.” It was so dark. Wes Craven allowed himself to turn into a little boy. He’d always kept the little boy inside him alive, but you’ve got to remember Wes was not allowed to watch a lot of film and television as a child, or listen to a lot of radio. He was always catching up on the culture a bit. I remember Wes started to laugh at that sketch and actually fell off the couch.

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Wes was six-foot, four-inches and he was laughing so hard, I think there was snot coming out of his nose. Jack Coleman is also tall and Jack’s a big guy, and Jack was laughing at the sketch but also at Wes laughing. To this day, I feel that that was the moment Wes let me know not that I was an equal, because I would never be an equal to Wes. Wes is a quadruple threat. I’m just an actor. Wes is a writer, director and many, many things. But Wes let me see him and let me see the kid and let his guard down. He wasn’t my boss anymore after that moment. He was never my boss again. I think from that moment on he was my friend.

Of all the extra Freddy stuff you did, you were in the Fat Boys video. Did you ever get to do the Fresh Prince video that never saw the light of day?

No, I remember I had friends who had a teenage daughter who was obsessed with Will Smith. That’s how I heard about that number. I tried to get New Line, and they didn’t want to do it yet because they didn’t want to go into horror comedy yet. I wanted to do a kind of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with The Fat Boys. I wanted to do a hip hop horror movie with The Fat Boys and let Freddy do a cameo but get a really great script. Maybe Freddy would be one of the monsters in it and play it real straight for Freddy, and let the Fat Boys mug and do the Abbott and Costello shtick. They weren’t having it. I think it would’ve been a great idea and obviously the Wayans Brothers now have done 15 horror parodies for that demographic.

No, when I wrote my book Hollywood Monster, I went into the Internet, that SongLyrics site. I typed in “Freddy Krueger” and I got 30 pages of songs with Freddy Krueger in them. I had no idea. I knew a few. I probably knew a dozen at the most, but Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, everybody had quoted Freddy Krueger or had done lines from the movies. I just did the biggest stars in a bibliography at the back of my book for “Freddy Krueger mentioned in rock n’ roll and hip-hop, and rap songs.” It’s huge. It’s amazing to me how many times that Freddy is referenced. That’s how big it was in the culture.

Nightmare 2 was the unsung sequel and it’s gotten a lot of credit now for being gay. It’s also the only one with a male protagonist and it’s the only standalone Freddy movie. Do you wish there had been more standalone Nightmares where it wasn’t necessarily connected to the children and Nancy?

I like the fact that Freddy needs to be connected to Springwood. He is for better or for worse on a revenge motif. That’s what we’re dealing with. I liked the class system in that movie. I liked the fact that we hinted at Freddy playing with a male protagonist’s hormones and his latent admiration, and crush perhaps, on his beautiful best friend that maybe he wasn’t aware of until Freddy got inside him and played mind games with him. And the rich girlfriend, Kim Meyers who looked like a teenage Meryl Streep, I think that was very smart.

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But I don’t like taking Freddy out of the dream, even though there are some classic sequences in that movie and some classic dialogue. I like it when Freddy’s always in the nightmares so all the stuff with the boy seems to work, but Freddy at the party, they really took him out of the nightmare for that. As great as some of those lines and images are, I think that’s a violation of the Wes Craven bible.

You didn’t really think Freddy was dead after Freddy’s Dead did you?

Well, I’ll tell you, we all took off our gloves on Freddy’s Dead. It’s very over the top. There’s actually a moment in that movie where I was replicating Bugs Bunny in a Warner Bros. cartoon. I’m pushing some wagon. It’s almost “What’s up, doc?” stuff. We had 3D in that movie and all sorts of bizarre effects. We were referencing the culture. We had Alice Cooper in there, we had Roseanne Barr, and Tom Arnold.

So we were pushing the envelope. We were making almost a Warner Bros. cartoon and we were allowed to do that, and we let ourselves do that because we felt he was so part of the culture then—we’d already done Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dick Cavett—that we could do that. We could go that far. After part six, there was really nowhere to go. We’d sort of put, without a bad pun here, the nail in the coffin of Freddy. And it had to be reconfigured and it took, again, the master, it took Wes to come up with this meta deconstructed movie, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

On your last day of Freddy vs. Jason, did you have a moment where you thought maybe this is my last time in the make-up?

I wasn’t a kid any longer. I was in my early 50s when I did that. It’s like a football player on Monday morning. You can’t get out of bed. You do those fight scenes, and I had a lot of stunts in that. I did all the water stuff myself, so everything you see in the water, coming out of the water and all that, that’s me. The only thing I didn’t do was the fire leap into the lake, and there’s one other big leap I didn’t do, but everything else. I was sore. Ken Kirzinger is a stunt coordinator, the guy who played Jason, and he really had my back in that. But I was sore and I wasn’t a kid anymore.

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I looked a little thicker in that film and I always thought of Freddy as this wiry junkyard dog, so I kind of thought it was time to hang up the hat and the claw after that. That was so long in incubation and development, that film. I had at least two start dates on that movie. At one time it was going to be Freddy vs. Jason 2000, the millennial movie. It had been incubating so long since the first kid that had seen Friday the 13th wondered, “Who’d win in a fight, Freddy or Jason, dude?” I’d been hearing about it forever and ever. Sam Raimi at one time was going to do it.

We finally got this great mash-up Hong Kong director, Ronny Yu, who’d done my favorite Chucky, Bride of Chucky. He had his own ideas. It almost looks like a graphic novel if you watch it. It’s a great mash-up. I knew I was in good hands but until I saw it, I didn’t know how good it was. It’s really a good little movie. I didn’t know how good it was going to be so I’m kind of glad that that’s my last Nightmare film. I don’t think I could top that and I’m too old now.

But it’s not just make-up. You’re sticking your head out of a TV. You’re coming out of a waterbed. You’ve got arms coming out of your head. All along the way, were those a lot of tough shoots?

They were but it has to do with the spacing and what else I was doing. I’m coming up on 80 movies now and that’s not counting four television series and 100 guest star roles. I get tired like anybody else. I love the franchise. Freddy’s been good for me. Freddy made me international. I’ve done 14 or 15 movies in Europe now. Freddy and made me international, so I have great respect for the genre, but yeah, I barely made it.

I remember the second or third week of part four, Renny [Harlin] was the first time I’d ever worked with video assist. We were at the junkyard, and Renny showed me the rough assemblage of the junkyard sequence. I had a blanket on and was having a cup of soup. Renny knew that I was running out of energy. So by seeing that rough cut, I got my second wind but I was dragging tail.

I didn’t want to do part five because I had just finished another movie. I met Stephen Hopkins, who’s like the handsomest man in Hollywood, at a Thai restaurant in Culver City. Stephen was doing storyboards and he’s such a great illustrator that I just said, “Take me now.” He goes, “I want this whole sequence to be like M.C. Escher.” I went oh, perfect for a dream sequence, I get it. That’s all he had to say to me and show me his doodle on a napkin, and I was hooked.

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I have a new appreciation for Nightmare 5: The Dream Child because I realized it’s the only time Freddy is afraid of something. He’s afraid of his mommy. Did that give you something interesting to play?

That was wonderful to play, yeah. Freddy’s afraid of his mommy and he’s afraid of the memories. The memories come back to haunt him. My best time on that was the sequence in the insane asylum. That was fun because that was my first time with the floating crane camera. There’s no crew. It was just me and 100 extras, and this little teeny camera. It was like having a drone on a little wiry crane.

That was my first time working with that technology, which was great. But that was also the hardest stuff because all that upside down stuff. I was like a piñata full of blood. I had to do all that upside down stuff, and there was a guy that had to run in after every take, and there’s a lot of wide shots in that magnificent set.

You had to also leave room in for a little bit of early CGI for the Escher-esque stuff, but that’s mostly practical soundstage. They had guys rush in and get my head up above my torso after every take, because I was filling up with blood [after] hanging there for so long. Plus my arm was pinned up behind my back.

Did you know which lines were going to be big? Like “Welcome to prime time, bitch” or “How’s this for a wet dream?”

“Welcome to prime time, bitch” was mine. The original line was something like, “Now you’re in the big time, Jennifer.” I turned that one into mine but the one that I’m getting a lot now is “Don’t worry, princess. The first time tends to get a little messy.” From Freddy vs. Jason. I can’t remember if that was written or if I improvised it, or if I added to it. That’s a great nasty, rapey, beauty and the beasty, Freddy final girl line. It really plays into a kind of subliminal thing. I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but now on Halloween, the number one costume the last couple of years have been the girls dressed as Freddy.

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And there’s an anime. There was actually a Japanese anime action figure of a famous blonde anime girl that dresses as Freddy. There’s many incarnations: half a face, a face with just the slash marks on it, or the whole face. Nylons, ripped, big boots or nylons and stilettos. So there’s all these incarnations of them co-opting and taking the power back, which I find fascinating.