My interview with Robert Englund lasted more than an hour. I think I spoke for about five minutes of that. It’s apparent his vocal gifts go beyond Freddy Krueger’s dastardly bons mots in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
Truth is, Englund had a lot to talk about. In addition to releasing his autobiography Hollywood Monster on Oct. 13, he’s part of a bold new project that could be a game-changer for original programming on the Internet. Fear Clinic is a five-part series that will be available at FEARnet On Demand and FEARnet.com beginning Oct. 26, with a new installment coming daily. The five-to-seven-minute clips feature an all-star horror cast — including Kane Hodder, who wore Jason’s hockey mask in four Friday the 13th movies, and Danielle Harris, who fled Michael Myers in several Halloween sequels.
Englund portrays Dr. Andover, a maverick whose experimental treatments for curing phobias have made him an outcast in the medical community. Now operating in a remote location, he functions as a desperate last resort for troubled teens whose parents have tried everything else. His method involves placing patients in the Fear Chamber — a sensory-deprivation tube with a form-fitting faceplate — where they confront what terrifies them most. This being a scary show, things start to go horribly wrong. Episodes with titles like “Hydrophobia,” “Scotophobia,” “Entomophobia,” “Misophobia” and “Claustrophobia” give a hint of what kind of terrors to expect.
Tell me a little about Dr. Andover. Was he always a bad guy, or did he lose his way somewhere?
The idea was that I was a good man, and I’ve really come up with some brilliant techniques. But I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve become obsessed. I’ve become particularly obsessed and unable to cure Danielle Harris. We will realize that I’ve been treating her since she was a child. I can’t fix her, and it’s driving me a little crazy, and it’s taking me to that place we call, conveniently, mad scientist.
So you’re there to get the good-looking teens into the Fear Chamber, and that’s where the scary part starts. Do you have an active role in the terror, or are you more like an MC?
I’m not really an MC. That’s more like Freddy’s Nightmares, a series I did for Lorimar. Or even more recently on Showtime, Masters of Horror, where I was sort of like Joel Grey in the Cabaret from hell. With this, I’m actually a complete participant, and perhaps even I will become a victim, whether it’s because of my own ambitions, or because I will become a conduit for something I’ve created. It’s that old cliché, Dr. Frankenstein has created this monster. He’s created this evil. I think that’s sort of where we’re going with this — that I’ve accidentally let the genie out of the bottle, and whether or not the genie gets up my ass I don’t know yet. But in one of the original screenplays, that’s where it goes. It actually takes over me. The chamber, it’s like this sort of David Cronenberg tank, isolation chamber. After enough patients have gone through this, we’re going to hint that there’s a residue of phobias. What phobias are is fear, and there’s this residue of fear building in there. While the patients that have been cured have been purged, where does that go? Where does that fear go? Kind of like the concept of ghosts being the residue of electrical energy from a living person before they die. So we’re going to play with that. We’re also playing with people who will revenge themselves on me. The Kane Hodder character, it’s as if I perhaps sprung him from doing community service in some prison hospital, my male nurse. I’m holding something over him, and he’s not happy about that, being a con. Perhaps he will revenge himself and his situation on me. Or maybe another character. Maybe our nurse (played by Nightmare on Elm Street vet Lisa Wilcox). There are going to be some hints that she and I did something fraudulent, perhaps sexual, when I was younger, and that got us the medical equivalent of disbarred. We’re playing with all these concepts, and I’m looking forward to it.
This cast is a virtual Mt. Rushmore of the horror genre.
As soon as we get the go-ahead [for more episodes], I’d love to bring in Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead [in Hellraiser]. Doug owes me a favor, so I want to get Doug over here. I’ll have to come up with an airline ticket, but I can do that. Doug would be great as my nemesis, maybe an Interpol agent who goes after illegitimate doctors, bringing back lamb placentas for Keith Richards. Or maybe he’s a fellow doctor who’s been wronged by me. We can get five episodes out of somebody in a hard six days’ work, because they’re so short.
Fear Clinic looks a lot like a feature film. How did the production crew pull that off?
[Director] Robert Hall really brought his game. He really called in some favors and just an extraordinary cameraman and crew. We were in there dancing in handheld. I came in for one shot, and they literally had the camera inside the guts of this human being. Literally inside the intestines. … I had to find my mark for that. But he really brought his game, and it really looks good. … I’ve seen the early episodes and they’re just remarkable. The production value is without a doubt the best stuff ever seen on the Internet.
Where do you see the medium going from here?
I know there’s a certain love and affection for the homemade on the Internet, and I’m all for that, too, and I appreciate it in alternative music, and I appreciate it in B-movies and in Sundance, independent films. But there’s been so much co-opting of that, not only by Sundance but by the studios and there’s been so much co-opting on the Internet of that kind of homemade look. Now this is what I call the faux homemade look and all you have to do is watch TV commercials to see that as well. I think that moment of time is over, and it’s time to say, “Let’s really see what we can do the best here.” Because the kids that were doing garage band indie rock a couple of years ago, they all want to play with all the wonderful digital toys in the studio, too, that are available, because you want to see what you can do. And that’s what we’re trying to do with a low budget and a crack crew that is young enough to really understand what can be done on the Internet and that short-attention span theater concept digitally, and yet also understand the fans out there. You know, we are all fanboys, too, and what they need in terms of effects and CGI and also just good old scary stuff, whether it’s hearkening back to a classic Twilight Zone fear or Nightmare on Elm Street or whatever we’re borrowing from, or new that we come up with. This phobia thing is a rather new gimmick. You can not only do legitimate phobias, but you can make stuff up, which I think is kind of fun. I’m chomping at the bit.
You work with many young directors — Robert Hall among them — who have said they idolized you growing up. When you step on set with a director who is also a fan, is there that initial period of hero worship you need to get through before you can get on to the work?
I forget a lot of them grew up on me, and for some of them those imaginative movies were like for another generation seeing Star Wars or something. It inspired them. … I have to remind myself that I’m the logo for that experience. A lot of people contributed to the success and the look and the imagination of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, which people forget were made for very little money. You got a lot of bang for the buck on those movies. So I get fawned over a bit, which is nice because I can kind of cut to the chase when I work with younger people, which I like. I was trained to serve the writer and director as an actor before I serve myself. Not to say that’s gotten in my way, but that’s a different way of working than most American actors work. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m not afraid to just really make a bold commitment to a character right away, which is kind of going back to the way I worked when I was very, very young and I kind of like that, because I think you can get sidetracked a little too quickly and too early with preparation sometimes, and it’s nice to cut through that and go right to original instincts. I’m fortunate enough to have had an acting teacher really early who encouraged, if you had recurring images when you were preparing for a part, or when you read a script when you have recurring images or recurring ideas, whether it’s a prop or how you see the character or something you want to do in a scene, you really have to defend that. If it keeps coming back to you over and over again. You have to be able to make an adjustment and discard it if the director hates it or if the writer hates it or if it’s not right or if it gets cut, but you need to honor your instincts and try it, and what’s great about working with young directors who are awestruck of me or give me respect is that I can kind of go throw that shit out there right away and make those kind of creative demands right away, which is kind of liberating as an actor.
With Freddy Krueger, you created one of the most famous and frightening horror villains of all time. Do you ever wonder if whatever villain you happen to be currently playing will catch on like that?
You’re never really looking for the franchise in terms of the character again. Sometimes you look for the franchise in terms of an idea and I love the idea of our film, of Fear Clinic. I think the idea is potentially a franchise, whether it would be an hourlong television show or a 30-minute television show or just a stand-alone feature. I think there’s a franchise element to the idea, to the gimmick of Fear Clinic. That’s how I see it sometimes. I see something that really lends itself to franchising in terms of that. Characters are a different thing. Usually, the audience determines that. People don’t realize sequels are made mostly because audiences fall in love with a character.
Do you think it was the way you played Freddy that made him so long-lasting, or was it more the basic idea of someone trying to kill you in your dreams?
I never played Freddy as real. In the true bible of Wes Craven’s outline for the films, Freddy only manifests himself in dreams. And a lot goes into a dream, not the least of which is imagination. So Freddy is secondhand information. Freddy is an urban legend that’s been handed down to these teenagers over the years. He’s something that’s whispered about at the orange grove or down by the creek, or at sleepovers in sleeping bags. When people dream about this legend, this scary story they’ve heard, they’re dreaming with their imagination, “What could Freddy do to me? How could Freddy hurt me? What would Freddy do?” Then Freddy literally manifests. So Freddy’s not real, he’s the product of a really vivid imagination in these people. He exploits that, so that’s how I keyed on Freddy. There’s a bit of almost a dance with Freddy. I never played Freddy as completely earthbound in reality. Something could piss Freddy off in a dream and he reacts realistically and he reacts from his own heart or his own gut. But Freddy’s also a manifestation in a dream, and that’s why he can behave differently with different people that are dreaming. I’m not sure if there’s a hard and fast consistency to the way he needs to be in every dream. He may treat different people differently. Obviously he’s more sexual with the girls. He poses a sexual threat.
One of the trademarks of the Nightmare films was their wicked sense of humor. Do you see that coming into play with Fear Clinic?
I think we’re a little shell-shocked right now because we assembled this extraordinary group of young actors to be our first wave of victims, and now we don’t get to keep any of them. So we’re a little shell-shocked. I think we need to bring in another character. … I don’t really have a sense of humor in this, which is unfortunate. I have a bit of an officious nature, which I think can come out, almost like a Clifton Webb bitchiness, which might be fun to exploit. What I learned from Wes Craven is that you can’t just scare somebody for 90 minutes. You can’t just put an audience in a perspiring jeopardy catharsis for 90 minutes. You have to relieve that tension, or no matter how great your stuff is or how grueling it is, people will start to mock it. Almost like the call and recall that takes place if you’ve ever seen a horror movie with an African-American audience. They sense the bullshit quicker. They have a kind of bullshit radar detector that goes off quicker. They yell at the white girl going up the stairs and call her out immediately. Wes realized that, and put humor in it, as did Sam Raimi. Sam Raimi was actually doing it on a little bit of a different level, more of on an exaggerated, comic book level early on with the Evil Dead movies. But still, having his cake and eating it, too, taking you down the primrose path and scaring you as well as making you laugh and be on this roller coaster ride. Whereas Wes really wanted to legitimately scare you and legitimately get under your skin, but he knew he had to relieve that tension with something clever and funny occasionally, so that he could recharge your engine and scare you again. You need that release, that sort of tension breaker. Now there are critics, and some of them are quite correct in saying we took it a little too far with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Part of that, as I say in my book, I think happened with the editors. It’s very easy for an editor to rely on a joke as a sort of a punctuation point, a button, to a sequence or a scene. It’s easy to leave that as a kind of a grace note. The old rimshot. If you had a choice of a violent, dark beat or you have a choice of a strange, evil comic wisecrack, I think some of our editors around Nightmare 4, 5 and 6 began to rely on that as a rhythmic device editorially. The humor in the Nightmare on Elm Street is a really good device, and of course in Wes’ Scream movies. It’s almost like a magician using misdirection.
OK, gotta ask, what are your thoughts on the V and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes?
I heard some good things about V, and I’m curious to see the new Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. There are several actors in it that I’m a big fan of. Clancy Brown is a remarkable actor. Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, I think she’s really well cast in that. That’s just a brilliant piece of casting. And I’ve been a fan of [new Freddy] Jackie Earle Haley’s since Breaking Away. I had done my Vietnam movie with Dennis Christopher, who starred in Breaking Away, so I’d seen Breaking Away a couple times and really loved that film and thought Jackie was terrific in it. I think he’s a real interesting choice. He’s not a real big guy, and I think that’s interesting, because in my mind’s eye, I always saw Freddy as being a little junkyard dog. A little scrappy guy, maybe compensating a little bit, and I think that’s a real interesting choice with Jackie. I’m not a real big guy either … I always kind of wanted to play him like a little wiry son of a bitch. I had to work that a little bit, because I’ve got very broad shoulders and face and if the camera gets too low on me I look huge. So I gave Freddy a little bit of that thrusting posture, I stooped a little bit just to give him that little kind of wiry thing going.
The same month that Fear Clinic hits, you’re releasing your autobiography, Hollywood Monster. Tell me about writing that and what you wanted to get across to readers.
That was six months of my life. That’s tricky stuff. That was a lot of work. I’m very happy with it. I wanted it to be an affectionate memoir, because Hollywood’s been good to me. I think I’m about ready to start my 75th movie here. I’ve done a lot of stuff, you know, four television series at least, lots of guest stars, worked all over the world from Puerto Vallarta to Budapest to Spain, just all over the place, Africa. I’ve been everywhere. I realized, “Gosh, I’m in my early 60s.” While I can still remember everything, and still namedrop, I wanted to kind of namedrop to give it a timeline. So when I talk about working with Burt Reynolds, it must be the ’70s. Gene Simmons, it must be the ’70s. And work my way through all of my adventures and all the people that I’ve roomed with, worked with, hung with, some of whom have become huge superstars, cult actors, Oscar winners, over the years and the adventures I’ve had with them. It’s called Hollywood Monster, so I kind of wanted to put to rest the idea that I’m in any way dissatisfied with ending up as Robert Englund a.k.a. Freddy Krueger. I’ve done eight Nightmare movies and a TV series, and I’ve done another half a dozen horror movies. But, you know, that’s probably only less than 20 movies out of 70 that have been in the horror genre that I’ve done. And I’m happy to do them, because when I do a horror movie, it’s a more lucrative paycheck for me because I fill the seats, at least in Italy and Spain I still do, or in DVD sales I do. So that’s a nice gift for an actor to have … with my horror career being almost simultaneous with MTV, the video generation, and then the DVD generation and also cable. Those three things sort of simultaneously occurred at the birth of my iconic career — V and then Freddy. So I’ve gotten two, three, four generations of fans as a result of video, DVD and the cable reruns. It’s been this great gift for me. And the other great, happy accident that you can never know about as an actor is that horror and science fiction travel very well. They’re very big overseas, so I have a huge international fan base as well, as a result of V and my horror movies. Some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies were even bigger in Europe than they were in the U.S. Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, for instance, was really embraced by the Europeans, and some of my little horror movies, too. I did a little horror movie called Killer Tongue with Melinda Clarke, which did really well in Australia. I mean, you never know. … American comedy doesn’t travel well. Nobody in Italy goes to see American Pie, and they don’t know Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien over there, but you drop me in a little Italian town and I’ll sign an autograph in five minutes. I’ll draw a crowd in 30 minutes, because those genre films and that science-fiction series traveled so well over there. I kind of wanted to impart this to people who like a good Hollywood autobiography and to my horror fans and to my science-fiction fans. I’ve had a damn good life here. Hollywood’s been good to me, and these are the reasons why. And then tell all my stories about whoever, Doug Bradley, Henry Fonda. I go back far enough to the early ’70s that I got to hit my marks with some pretty famous old stars, whether it was James Earl Jones or Henry Fonda or some other great actors. Hal Holbrook. I’ve worked with some of these people, and some of the great independent directors from the ’70s. So I also wanted to kind of remind my fans, especially the young ones, that I have been around and that I have this other body of work out there and they can find it on the Internet or they can find it on Netflix and they can watch it on a nice little flat-screen in their living room some night with a piece of pizza and enjoy seeing me when I still had a full head of hair.