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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Horror Icon: Robert Englund

Robert Englund.  His name rings like a bell in the night as a warning that the ultimate King Of Horror has returned.  With an autographed copy of his book, Hollywood Monster, by my side, I decided it was time to take a walk down Elm Street with the man of our dreams...

His name is synonymous with giving us nightmares. He was the reason why sleep eluded many in the mid-eighties. He is the undisputed King Of Horror. He is Robert Englund.

Robert Barton Englund made his first appearance on June 6th, 1947, in Glendale, California. (Special Note: Robert’s father, Kent Englund, was an aeronautics engineer who helped develop the Lockheed U-2 aircraft)

Taking an interest in acting from a young age, Robert joined a children’s theatre program at California State University in Northridge at the age of twelve and showed a lot of promise. From there his passion for the arts grew and in high school, Englund attended the Cranbrook Theatre School. According to his book ‘Hollywood Monster’ Robert states in the opening chapter that his junior high crush was responsible for him going into acting. “She was pretty, and sweet, and I had a tiny bit of a crush on her, so when I found out she was involved with a semi-professional children’s theatre in the San Fernando Valley called the Teenage Drama Workshop, I was intrigued. If acting was cool to the cutest eighth-grade girl in the Valley, that was good enough for me, so when she invited me to check out a show, I couldn’t refuse.” – Hollywood Monster insert.

Robert has even gone on the record to say his love of acting probably came about because he was an only child and he craved the attention. Of course, he says this with his trademark smile and twinkle of mischief in his green eyes.

After high school, Robert attended California State University for three years before transferring to Michigan’s Oakland University where he trained at the Meadow Brook Theatre which was at the time a branch of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Robert admits that in his early years he was a struggling actor, often living with others and sleeping in shifts. His first film didn’t come around until 1974. Buster And Billie (starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Pamela Sue Martin) was about a dimwitted but sweet high school girl of easy virtue and the most popular boy in the school share an improbable romance. It also caused quite the controversy when Jan-Michael Vincent stripped off on camera and provided America with one of the first mainstream movies to show full frontal male nudity.

In 1975, Robert became a little star struck himself when he starred with Burt Reynolds, Catherine Deneuve, Eileen Brennan and Ernest Borgnine in the movie Hustle which is about a bitter, cynical cop who investigates the case of a dead stripper/porno actress found on the beach. Doesn’t sound that exciting when I put it like that, but it is a great film.

In 1977, Robert entered the horror genre for the first time, starring as Buck, a redneck, sex-crazed weirdo in Tobe Hooper’s, Eaten Alive. In the same year, he made an appearance in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries along side future Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis.

He got to work with Jan-Michael Vincent again in Big Wednesday, a surfing movie, in 1978. Big Wednesday also starred Gary Busey who Robert has said often came up against him for roles. Big Wednesday, to this day, is still quoted to Robert, who is still an avid surfer. 

It wasn’t until 1984 that Robert became a household name. And no, it’s not for what you’re thinking. That came a little later in the year. I’m talking about the Sci-fi series V in which Rob portrayed the friendly alien named Willie. Robert’s character was very popular on the show, so much so that according to his book the studios received so much fan mail for ‘Willie’ that they didn’t bother passing it on to him. He even apologises if he didn’t reply to anyone who sent him a letter.

OK, now we’re at the good stuff! The stuff nightmares are made of! A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) saw Robert turn from friendly alien into dream demon which in turn became one of horrors ultimate icons. Everybody knows his name, so say it with me; Freddy Krueger!

Now, I was born in 1986 so I missed out on what the phenomenon of Nightmare was, however from what I’ve been told, once Wes Craven and New Line Cinema unleashed Krueger on the world, there was no stopping him. And as the sequels progressed so did Freddy with lunch boxes, talking dolls (which were eventually banned because children became too afraid to sleep at night – I am proud to say I’m in possession of one of these dolls), even cough lollies. I’m fully serious. At some point in the eighties according to Rob’s book, there were Freddy Krueger cough lozenges. I bet they were some what hard to swallow.

Robert, while racking up the body count for the Nightmare series, also made guest appearances on some well known TV shows. Knight Rider, MacGyver and even the very successful North and South, Book II which was a TV mini-series about the Civil War and featured some very well known names like Patrick Swayze, Linda Evens, Morgan Fairchild, David Carradine and Kirstie Alley just to name a few. (Robert was in one episode for about five minutes, playing a southern solider)

But the eighties were all about Krueger to the point that Robert contemplated leaving the franchise all together. (Side Note: He eventually decided to stay on because Freddy paid the bills and he wasn’t just a character that anybody could play. He had poured half his own personality into creating the character and couldn’t imagine anyone else portraying the ‘loveable’ dream demon – and yet Freddy was remade in 2010)

In 1988 Robert stepped out of the limelight of acting and got behind the camera for his directorial debut for a film called 976-Evil. Imagine if the devil had a hotline where you could get your ‘horrorscopes’ daily. Cheesy but a fun film none the less. Robert has a good eye for direction.

Now I have to bring up one of my personal favourite films of Robert’s: The Phantom Of The Opera from 1989. Unlike the musical version that I’m sure you’re all picturing right now, Robert’s version was a horror that saw him dive under make-up again to play Erik Destler, better known as the Phantom. This was the first version since the 1925 film to feature the Masquerade Ball sequence, and the Phantom dressing as ‘Red Death’ as depicted in the original novel by Gaston Leroux.

We’ve reached the 1990′s now which saw the reign of Freddy come to an end. In 1991 Freddy’s Dead The Final Nightmare was completed and was by far the worst performing of the Nightmare series. By this stage Freddy was more known for his cracking one-liners and his hilarious antics rather than his kills. He had gone from super scary to comedy legend which was a sad demise for our beloved dream demon. Although, Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan) does make Freddy’s top five favourite kills (to be revealed at the end of this article)

By this time Robert was officially over Freddy and was relived not to be playing him any more. That was until Wes Craven called in 1994 with a new idea of taking Freddy from the movies and bringing him into the real world for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

New Nightmare saw Robert team up once again with John Saxon and Heather Langenkamp. This time, not only was Robert playing Freddy but he was also playing himself. His naturally sweet persona gives way to the menace that is Krueger. The transformation between the two is incredible and I have to say, if Robert himself is anything like how he was playing ‘himself’ in New Nightmare, then he seems like a lot of fun to work with. (Side Note: The make-up artists who have been responsible for Robert’s transformation to Freddy have all said that he loves a good chat and often, it’s because of him talking that the application of the make-up takes so long)

In 1995 Robert found himself once again in the make-up chair, this time preparing for his role in The Mangler. Based on a Stephen King short story, The Mangler was about a laundry folding machine that is possessed by a demon from Hell. Only from the mind of Stephen King, right? Tobe Hooper directed, casting Robert as the owner of the factory and despite all the make-up, Robert’s performance was flawless. He is a fantastic actor no matter how much his face is covered by prosthetics and make-up.

Once again, the mid nineties saw Robert return to TV. Married With Children, Babylon 5 and Sliders all had guest appearances by Robert. (Fun Fact: Robert’s character in Married With Children, episode ‘Damn Bundys’, was named Lucifer)

In 1997, Robert returned to horror in Wishmaster. Playing an art dealer by the name of Raymond Beaumont, Englund was considered a good guy. Immoral at times, but still a good guy. His performance was alluring and he was able to steal focus from the leading lady, despite not having much screen time. (Fun Fact: Both Kane Hodder and Tony Todd appeared in Wishmaster)

In 1998, Robert left horror briefly to do a Disney movie entitled Meet The Deedles which starred a very young Paul Walker. It’s not an Earth shattering movie by any standards, but it is some good clean fun, however Robert’s role as Mr. Nemo was completely beneath him. He is much more talented than that movie would have you believe.

In the same year he did Urban Legends. Playing Professor William Wexler, Robert was a teacher of Folk Law, specificity dealing with urban legends. Once again, he’s a good guy but there’s a hell of a lot of suspicion thrown upon him especially when the leading characters, Paul (Jared Leto) and Natalie (Alicia Witt) find an axe hidden in a secret closet in his office. (Fun Fact: Urban Legends was my introduction to Robert Englund as an actor. It was the movie where I developed a massive crush on him. Also, Brad Dourif – Chucky from Child’s Play – is uncredited as the gas station attendant right at the start)

At the start of the new millennium, Robert tackled one of his own fears which is snakes by doing the movie Python. Python which featured, well, a giant man-eating python is somewhat of a horror-comedy. It was a laughable movie in general but once again, Robert dazzled, stealing the limelight and evidently trying to save the day (and the film). His character played with a baby python throughout the entire film which according to his book was very fear-installing. While he’s no longer deathly afraid of snakes, Robert still doesn’t like them and is happy if he never has to touch another one again.

Skip a few years and Robert returned to the big screen as his alter ego, Freddy Krueger, in Freddy Vs. Jason. Now I’m sad to say that this was my introduction to Freddy because before 2003 it was rare to find the Nightmare films floating around in Australia (Fun Fact: By early 2004 I had the complete collection which didn’t start officially selling in Australia until early 2005 – thank you USA for sending them to me and my secret horror store)
Freddy Vs. Jason would be Robert’s last film appearance as the dream demon (and his largest paycheck), however fast forward two years, and Rob donned the make-up and the red and green stripped sweater again for A Nightmare On Elm Street: Real Nightmares TV series.

That same year Robert would channel his inner hillbilly by playing Mayor Buckman in 2001 Maniacs. Now, I actually enjoyed this film. The deaths were very elaborate, unique and fun. And if all that failed you can try and spot Kane Hodder in the background (it took me 28 attempts of watching this movie to find him) or else just stare longingly at Ryan Flemming or Giuseppe Andrews. And for the guys, there’s a bunch of nudity on behalf of the women.

2005 was a busy year for Robert. As well as hosting Real Nightmares and starring in 2001 Maniacs Robert also loaned his voice to the character of Felix Faust in the Justice League TV show which ran from 2002 right up until 2005. (Fun Fact: Robert also lends his voice to the Batman animation by voicing The Riddler)

In 2006, Robert made a ten minute guest appearance in Hatchet along side old friends Kane Hodder and Tony Todd. Kane was the bad guy and this time, Rob didn’t make it.

He also starred in a fantastic, original movie called Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon in which his character, Doc Halloran, was very reminiscent of Donald Pleasence in Halloween. From the facial hair right down to the long coat he wore, Robert became all that is good in humanity as he confronts Leslie on his killing spree. If you haven’t seen it, go and get it. Great film that is completely worth the watch. (Fun Fact: Kane Hodder is also spotted in this film, trimming a hedge at the start and then entering Freddy’s house – 1428 Elm Street)

Taking a leap from cinema and television, there was only one avenue that Robert hadn’t tackled head on: the Internet. But this all changed with a little webcast show called Fear Clinic in which Robert plays Dr. Andover who hopes to save people from their phobias by getting them to confront them. Starring with him in this impressive series was none other than Kane Hodder, Lisa Wilcox (Alice from Nightmare On Elm Street Parts 4 and 5) and Danielle Harris of Halloween fame.

Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without Robert’s own personal views about being replaced as Freddy in the 2010 Nightmare On Elm Street remake. Quote “I was not very engaged by the characters, the movie was slow and I thought the decision for a more “realistic” melted nose burn make-up was nonsensical (Freddy is a dream phantom, why “real”?) and robbed JEH (Jackie Earle Haley) of a strong profile, something a character seen mostly in shadows and silhouette needs.” (I understand that entire sentence to read as “I’m Freddy, you’re not”)

With his new movie, Inkubus storming cinemas, it marks a return for him to the horror genre. Rob has addressed how he often seems pigeon-holed in horror. He has stated numerous times that he is fine with being type cast at a redneck, or a hick or a doctor with an agenda and being the ‘bad guy’ is quite invigorating.

Robert Barton Englund is a rarity when it comes to the acting game. Classically trained, he is both funny and serious, his performances can be laughable or frightening. He delivers 110% each time showing that he is fully committed. And every time, regardless of how bad the movie, Robert Englund still manages to steal the spotlight.

In his book Robert says, quote, “If only one of my movies survives the test of time, that’s wonderful, but if I can make you forget your problems for a minute or three, I’ve done my job. My goal as an actor, writer, or director is that you have a great time, then you go back to your life, hopefully in a better mood, ready for a night of peaceful sleep and sweet dreams.

Or, better yet, a night of horrible sleep and brutal nightmares.”

Now, in his mid-sixties, Robert has no intention of slowing down. Still travelling the world with his Freddy badge pinned proudly on his chest, Robert is a hot commodity at conventions the world over and takes time out of his busy life to meet with fans and to even sign their tattoos. Which is something that he still find strange that people would ink Freddy’s face to their bodies. “It just shows how much of a popular culture icon Freddy has become,” Robert says.

“I am eternal!” 

Freddy Krueger may have been the one to utter these words, but they apply just as well to Robert himself. Yes, Rob, you certainly are eternal and when it comes to the horror genre, no one does it bigger or better than you.

Freddy Krueger's Top 5 Kills

1) Amanda Wyss (Tina) Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

2) Ricky Dean Logan (Carlos) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)

3) Bradley Gregg (Phillip) Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

4) Brooke Theiss (Debbie) Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master (1988)

5) Kelly Rowland (Kia) Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)

My Top 5 Robert Englund Films

1) A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) – Can’t go past what ultimately started his career in horror

2) The Phantom Of The Opera (1989) – Rob’s performance as the Phantom is both chilling and sympathetic

3) Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006) – Rob as a Dr. Loomis type character – amazing!

4) Urban Legends (1998) – What started my love of Robert I highly recommended to all – Directed by an Aussie too!

5) Dead And Buried (1981) – Didn’t get a mention in this article, but it is a fun film. Gives a whole new meaning to zombies.

2 comments:

  1. Love, Love, LOVE this man! Great job! You should write biographies.

    ReplyDelete