I Want My Fred TV!
Robert Englund, Tobe Hooper and the rest of the Freddy’s Nightmares gang look back at the premiere season that was.
By: Marc Shapiro
Published in Fanorgia #81.
A Nightmare on Elm Street—Freddy’s Nightmares: The Series. By now you’ve seen it. In fact, by now you’ve seen all of it, for as you read this, Fango’s lead time and Freddy’s Nightmares’ speed-of-light production schedule have combined to put a wrap on the first season’s 22 episodes as this issue hits the streets. So what did you think? Did Freddy Krueger’s anthologized haunting of that white bread berg Springwood gut your intestines? Or did Mr. Razorfingers’ small screen exploits pull your attention span far to the left of the brain dead?
It’s not like this cumbersomely titled series didn’t have the horror horses. Robert Englund was once again submitting to the terrors of the makeup chair as Freddy. Directors for each hour’s related yet separate set of stories ran the horror talent pool to the tune of Tobe Hooper, Ken Wiederhorn, Mick Garris, Tom (Friday the 13th, Part VI) McLoughlin, Renny Harlin, Dwight (Halloween IV) Little, Tim (River’s Edge) Hunter and Englund himself. Throw in production designer Mick Strawn (a veteran of the third and fourth Nightmare films) and the collective moneybags of New Line Cinema, Lorimar Television and Stone Television, and you definitely had the potential to ruin the sleep of a national television audience.
And that potential seems to have been realized. Small screen Freddy, currently on display in 160 markets, has scored a solid 12 in the Nielsen ratings (as good as gold to a TV executive) and has held a respectable sound-to-fourth place standing even when going head-to-head with network offerings. However, the fate of a second season of Freddy’s Nightmares is presently up in the air. But then, that’s not important. What’s important is: What did you think?
“Censorship is not my problem,” growls Robert Englund as he settles into a director’s chair on the crowded and quite dusty soundstage where “Mother’s Day,” the eighth episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, unfolds one Southern California evening. “If these shows don’t get past the censors—well, that’s America,” he shrugs. “But I don’t want Fango fans to think I’ve wimped out on them. These scripts are hardcore. What will make it to the screen is anybody’s guess.”
Earlier today, Englund, decked out to the nines in Krueger mufti and scar tissue makeup, scared and wisecracked on a set designed to simulate a radio station. With the talk show hostess appropriately terrorized, director Michael Lang called a wrap to Freddy’s rap. Fresh off Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and his more recent honeymoon, Englund is his usual accommodating self. Freddy’s Nightmares, scheduling and otherwise, has definitely proven the acting equivalent of slap-and-tickle. “Hey, I’m finally making some good money, I’m being pampered and I’m only on the set once a week,” he smiles. “It doesn’t get much better than this.” Englund’s cozying up to the small screen life is interrupted by a piece of equipment hitting the floor, followed by a crew member’s expletive. He ventures that more interruptions are in the offing, so he leads your reporter down a winding corridor and into a secluded production office, where his hyping of syndicated Nightmares continues.
“We’re shooting these suckers in six days, using a lot of great young filmmaking talent,” elaborates Englund, whose Freddy persona is now limited to bookending the segments with witty macabre vignettes and token appearances in the stories proper. “Translating the film Nightmare on Elm Street to television has not gotten away from the true intent of the Freddy Krueger character. There’s always been an underlying tone to the Nightmare films that Freddy is waging war on the status quo; to my way of thinking, the TV series is carrying on that tradition.”
“OK, how about last week’s episode?” challenges Englund, whose makeup is beginning to show the rigors of going on eight hours under hot lights. “The kid is about to get hit with a bullet, and his whole life flashes before him. He’s freaked because he’s not going to make it to college and is going to end up in fast food hell, working for his parents. All of a sudden Freddy appears and guts him—but instead of his guts coming out, chili for the chili burgers pours out and we see his mother down on her knees, eating the chili off the floor. In another scene, the kid gets decapitated, and ketchup comes out of his neck instead of blood. Now, I’m not sure how much of that you’re going to see by the time the censors get through with it, but that’s the kind of extreme, go-for-the-throat stuff that’s been in all the scripts.”
This brand of TV making is a process Englund is more than familiar with. “V and Downtown would be considered pretty lame or middle of the road television,” frowns Englund of his two previous series stints. “But even those gave me some good acting moments. Freddy’s Nightmares, at least so far, has not been your typical show. It’s offering up a great deal of atypical television. The makeup and sense of humor are straight out of the Nightmare films , which automatically gives the show a leg up on just about anything currently on the air. The violence on the show is more surreal and much more imaginative. It’s no wonder we’ve occasionally had problems and delays with some of the special effects; doing a Freddy’s Nightmares trick is not like filming a car chase.” A production assistant breaks things up with a call for the star to return to the set. “Well, I’m off to be hanged,” chuckles Englund as he shambles back to work.
The scene in question is one of the aforementioned wraparound segments in which Freddy, standing next to a copy machine, pulls an image of himself out of it, utters one of his patented bon mots, shreds the picture with his razor hand and is suddenly hanged, by way of a noose around his neck, by an unseen force. Englund was right when he said Freddy’s Nightmares FX were not a car chase. First the picture-feeding capabilities of the copy machine malfunction. Then the harness Englund wears for the hanging sequence doesn’t lift properly. Next the camera angle isn’t quite right. Fifteen minutes later, the porridge is just right. The director calls for action. The copier buzzes and clanks. Freddy pulls out the paper likeness and holds it up for inspection. “Copier, copier, down the hall, who’s the fairest one of all?” Freddy cackles. Two beats later he says, “Not me,” and shreds the photo while laughing the way only Freddy can. At a signal, a group of off-stage musclemen pull on a rope that hoists Englund to his last hurrah. He twists and turns momentarily. His feet twitch sharply, until finally swinging motionless.
Last August, Mr. K. bad it much easier when the Chainsaw director came to town. Tobe Hooper owed New Line Cinema president Robert Shaye a favor. Which is why, when Shaye asked him to direct the first episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, the man who gave stardom to Black and Decker fired back a thumbs-up. “The main thing I had to be aware of was being true to the spirit of what Freddy Krueger has become,” explains Hooper, whose previous episodic television credits were for Amazing Stories and The Equalizer. “I weighed everything I did in that first episode against the public’s awareness of Freddy.”
Hooper also carried some heavy heat on his shoulders when he hit the stage for that first encounter with Nightmares. “I knew ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ was not only the pilot episode, but also that it was the prequel that everybody has been talking about for so many years,” Hooper recalls. “The real pressure for me was to turn out a stylish feature quality television show in six days. Not meeting the reality of a fixed schedule was what I feared most. The first episode had lots of effects, band props and crane shots. In one sense, it all seemed kind of impossible to do, but there I was on this soundstage one day, attempting to do it.”The polite Texan claims that the pedigree of Freddy’s Nightmares did not influence the way he ramrodded that first installment. “Most of the first show was essentially a very stylish drama, moments within moments,” he clarifies. “I succeeded in opening things up a bit. People who have been fans of the movies will see new layers of character, while people who have never seen a Nightmare movie will find themselves with this whole big fantasyland to play around in.”
Hooper, following his Freddy TV stint, is juggling a number of movie projects, such as Spurting Blood, a comic sendup of slasher films, and Robby Zenith and the Pig of Knowledge, which he describes as a metaphysical fantasy. The director also indicates that a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 is not totally out of the question. Neither does he rule out the possibility of doing another Freddy episode. “Sure, I’d like to do another one,” concludes Hooper. “I’d do it if I saw that the quality was being kept high. For this series to be done right, they need to keep the stylish feature quality to each episode. And that’s going to take a great deal of work, because Freddy’s Nightmares is by no means your typical TV show.”
Once the atypical Freddy has hung around to everybody’s satisfaction, the event is rewarded by lunch being called. Englund, script in hand, wanders off to a quiet soundstage corner to study his lines. A tray of something edible and Oriental is brought over to him. Everybody else, including Englund’s makeup caddy Gino Crognale, gets their munchies the regular way. “Yeah,” chuckles Crognale, “when I’m not putting Robert together I can usually be found at the Craft Service table.” The FX artist, whose credits include A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, took over puttying Krueger from Kevin Yagher after the pilot. He asserts that Freddy’s making the jump from big screen to small screen has not given him makeup grief. “It’s still the same makeup, applied the same way,” shrugs Crognale. “It’s still the same eight pieces for the head and one for the hand. We’ve got the makeup process down to a little under three hours now. After that, it’s just a matter of touching him up, keeping the lips down and the eyelids intact. Those are the things that start to go after Robert’s been under the hot lights for 11 hours.”
Crognale believes that the only difference he’s seen in the makeup process is how the finished Freddy appears to the TV eye. “They really light Robert in Freddy colors, red and green with a straight white light on the eyes.” he discloses. “It results in the makeup appearing washed out, but that seems to be the effect the producers want. There’s also been the occasional optical distortion over Freddy. But they haven’t asked us to modify Freddy’s look for TV—which is just as well, because I could just see Kevin hitting the ceiling if they did.”
When lunch ends, Englund readies himself for a bout of bluescreen action, but not before a final discourse on what Freddy’s Nightmares does to the chances for further film adventures on Elm Street. “At this point, we’ll just have to see if there can be a Nightmare 5,” he states candidly. “I’ve got no problem with continuing to play the character, but it’s a strong possibility that Freddy the film character will cease to exist and will live only as a late night TV hoot. We’ll have to see what a nonstop dose of Freddy does to the appetite of his fans.” Englund hops up on a glorified box in front of the bluescreen and, at the director’s signal, cuts loose with a “You’re going to the moon, Alice’: before executing a neat little softshoe dance.
Take heart, Robert. If there isn’t further life on Elm Street, you’ve always got vaudeville.