Robert Englund talks up the long-awaited Freddy vs. Jason and his own place in pop culture.
By: Kier-la Janisse
Published in Fanorgia #225.
If Robert Englund is disappointed at the replacement of Kane Hodder as Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason, it isn’t apparent. “Where’s puckface?” he shouts jovially, while getting his makeup touched up by FX designer Bill Terezakis’ assistant Patricia Murray. “Are you a man or a goalie?!” he continues, prodding his absent co-star.
When Fango visits the set of the long awaited matchup, Englund is on fire: With his continuous, quick-witted banter on everything from Shakespeare to Marilyn Manson, his knowledge of pop culture—and his place in it—is pretty comprehensive. Tobe Hooper, who directed Englund in Eaten Alive and The Mangler, describes him as a character actor with a vengeance, and a range that defies the limitations foisted upon cult actors by the public and casting agents alike.
In an age where the franchising of a film emblemizes the death of its creative integrity, Englund is a stalwart defender of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. “The entire first movie, in my interpretation, is a prophecy dream,” he says. “Heather Langenkamp has a prophetic dream. It’s gonna happen-but it hasn’t yet. How could it, when Johnny Depp picks her up at the end to go to school? And it’s all hyper-reality lit, Wes Craven bright with birds and bees…”
He goes on to dispel notions that the critically acclaimed Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was a box-office disappointment, positing it in the realm of underappreciated postmodern horror films: “It did phenomenal on video, at least $60 million. It just wasn’t a huge hit, and that’s because of the timing. It was a moment too soon. When Scream came out, audiences were ready to have their tongues in their cheeks and go behind the scenes.”
Freddy Krueger made his last “appearance” at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, his razor-gloved hand snatching Jason’s mask down to the netherworld and perfectly setting up Freddy vs. Jason. So where does last year’s space romp Jason X fit into the schema? “You can be cynical about it if you want,” Englund says. “It’s real simple—I believe because we dragged ass getting Freddy vs. Jason into production, perhaps New Line just contractually had to release another Friday the 13th film by that date, and so they did, because they realized they weren’t ready to do Freddy vs. Jason yet. Even though there was set up in the prior one, with the claw coming out.”
One critical concern regarding Freddy vs. Jason (opening August 15 from New Line) has been whether Freddy would dominate the film, given the speechlessness of his opponent. But Englund maintains that the script by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift allows for plenty of quality Jason time that helps create the necessary balance. “A lot of the backstory and exposition on Jason is phenomenal,” the actor says, “because you learn it in a nightmare in a nightmare reality, which is just brilliant. And Jason is perhaps more deserving of sympathy in this picture. Still, he’s got a higher body count than I do.” Englund adds that after three years of making movies in Europe (sans latex), his own skin is not nearly as resilient where the makeup is concerned as when the Nightmare series began. “When we do the water stuff, Patricia and the rest of Bill’s crew have to double-glue me for a day in the tank, because otherwise I look like Mr. Bubblehead.” He laughs as he recognizes the parallel to his onscreen alter ego: “Freddy’s older and more afraid. He gets dragged into reality and has a hard time getting up from a punch, especially from Jason. He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’, but he’s down for the count a lot in this one. This is very elemental, very mythological. What is Freddy afraid of? Fire. It’s his worst fear. What’s Jason’s worst fear? Water. All that Greek mythology shit, it’s all manifested, especially in the finale.”
Because both franchises call for the obligatory teen quotient, young stars Jason Ritter, Monica Keena, Katharine Isabelle and Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland are on hand to supplant their legion of slaughtered forebears. However, with the constant recourses to “five years later” and “10 years later,” both the Nightmare and Friday series remain essentially timeless, and Englund admits that the passing of a generation is dealt with in aslightly nebulous manner. That said, an interesting hook to the script is that, like an old tradition that is heeded without question, the kids take dream-deprivation pills and don’t remember the Elm Street bogeyman known as Freddy Krueger. “We’re the Prozac generation now,” Englund says. “So we have that metaphor going, and that’s the gimmick-that’s why none of the kids know Freddy.” But perhaps what is most revealing about this long-awaited showdown is its function as a cultural barometer. Audience loyalties toward either Freddy or Jason-when one is a child-killer and the other a murderer whose preferences belie a certain conservative Christian morality are curious, to say the least. If one were to emerge victorious, what would New Line be endorsing? It seems therefore inevitable that either both or neither will make it out alive. Then again, it is generally impertinent to mount the issue of whether Freddy and Jason make appropriate “idols” for the impressionable age group they largely appeal to; by now, nearly 20 years after the inception of both series, any dismissal on the grounds of moral reprehensibility is dismissible in itself. Freddy and Jason are as integral to any appraisal of our culture as hip-hop, O.J. or Desert Storm.
“It’s wonderful when you see something that specialized entering the popular vernacular, the popular culture,” Englund says, “whether it’s Freddy Krueger in political cartoons or as a joke by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, or as a lyric from the Storm Troopers of Death or the Fat Boys… you add to the popular culture, it becomes nomenclature. And the hockey mask now is synonymous with a certain brutality. They just become a part of it—they have to be respected. There’s a reason. I mean, I get 100 letters a week just from Germany! It’s interesting. What’s happened is that another generation has picked up on it, obviously for its original, universal values-everybody’s had a bad dream, everybody’s had a nightmare.”
The humor inherent in both franchises also troubles the genre’s detractors, because of claims that it unconscientiously neutralizes the horror. But Englund argues that humor of the North American horror film, one with a pragmatic rather than a moral purpose. “Well, first of all, it depends on the story,” he says. “If an audience doesn’t laugh, you can only spook ’em and build up the suspense so long and then it becomes silly. Because you start using the logical side of your brain and it becomes a Scream movie—you don’t want the audience saying, ‘Don’t leave the house, don’t go upstairs, don’t answer the phone,’ etc. That’s why Wes had to lampoon all that. You’ve lost them. If you’ve got them laughing, you can set them up for a scare. It’s misdirection. You’re diverting them so you can set it up to frighten them again. Whereas I can see a great European film, and the reason I as a North American can sit through it rapt with attention is because a European film is exotic to me—it’s an exotic locale with exotic actors.”
Englund acknowledges the stratification that colors the fear genre, but assures that all types of horror are informed and influenced by each other. “[In Nightmare] there are characters; the Friday the 13th films are more stripped down, and you have to evaluate them the way you would evaluate a Dario Argento movie a certain way,” the actor argues. “Or you look at movies like The Innocents, The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, The Sixth Sense—the so-called ‘prestige’ horror. The hardcore gore fans have to respect those films. I got into a big argument with Bruce Campbell and Wes Craven and everybody a few years ago at a film festival in Europe,” he continues, “because I said that you’ve gotta respect those films too. Because those movies aren’t selling out—they bring fans to Terror Train and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter and Hannibal bring in fans to the subgenres as well. It’s cross pollinating.”
“You can see how that works: You look at Hannibal, it could never have had the [gore scenes it does] had it not been for our films. Hannibal eats Ray Liotta’s brain-that’s right out of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, I’m sorry. And this look and my voice have been ripped off in how many movies? How many times have people ripped off things that Tobe Hooper invented in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and used them in high-toned thrillers with Ashley Judd or Morgan Freeman or somebody—you’ll see a whole sequence right out of Chainsaw, and yet I don’t know if those people would sit down with Tobe! And they don’t realize it’s not Hitchcock they’ve stolen from, it’s Chainsaw, which coined a lot of filmic phrases.”
Regarding the package of Freddy and Jason together, Englund maintains that it was the next logical step for both franchises: “All the comics matched superheroes against each other.” He points out that Freddy vs. Jason is only one in a flood of such combo sequels headed our way, including Alien vs. Predator, Superman vs. Batman and even this month’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which may be the ultimate comic-book amalgamation of film and literary figures gathered in a single narrative). “I remember “I remember reading Superman vs. Batman when I was a kid in the comic shop,” Englund says. “This is nothing new. We don’t want it to be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, although we’ve already had those movies, you know, with the Wayanses running around with famous killers. I just think it’s a part of the genre, and if somebody makes Alien vs. Predator, we’re not telling the fans that we think less of them or anything else, we’re just pushing the envelope.”
Reagan-era horror has long been dismissed as intellectually and culturally bankrupt, and the iconization of Freddy and Jason has been used as an example of that degeneration. But a new breed of writers and directors who have descended upon Hollywood disagree. The kids who read FANGORIA in the ’80s—whose interest in Freddy and Jason may well have been the only thing that prompted them to read in the first place—are the cinema’s new blood, and are not afraid to show their allegiance to the horror films and comic books that made them what they are. “I was visited on the set the other day by [director] Bryan Singer and the writers of X2,” Englund says, “and a friend of mine, Tim Sullivan, who did Detroit Rock City and is trying to do a new 2000 Maniacs. And they’re like kids in a candy store with Ken [Kirzinger, the new Jason] and I, taking pictures. We’re down at Camp Crystal Lake—where Crystal Lake condos are going up-and those guys are making movies now, those guys are running Hollywood now, those guys have Oscars now! That’s why we got Spider-Man, if I was 25 and a millionaire, I’d wanna do Blackhawk comics! It’s just that those people are running the world now, and that’s what they want to see, and people want to mix it up.”
In the end, Englund is proud of his horror heritage. “I’ve come full circle—I was a ’70s independent film actor, and now I’m a European independent film actor. But I wouldn’t be doing important, low-budget art films in Europe now if the doors hadn’t been opened, if the Europeans weren’t so wonderfully non-judgmental about the genre. And I’m grateful and happy about that. In other words, they embrace it—it’s just another great American import like Levi’s or jazz or rock ‘n’ roll. Or hamburgers. They don’t judge it. It’s not this PTA born-again rallying cry: ‘Let’s ban horror movies and crucify Marilyn Manson.’ They don’t look at it that way; they just think it’s another wonderful element of pop culture. I know I’ve said this to Fango before, but it’s still true and valid.”