Rating: 4 out of 5.

Further proving that he is a hall of famer genre actor, Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story highlights the entire filmography of a cinema legend. Interviews are featured with everyone from indie directors Adam Green and Tim Sullivan to Englund’s coworkers and friends. There is truly nothing like getting to see someone reflect on all of their projects, and Englund is just old enough at 75 that a retrospective feels essential. A humbling portrait of a horror sweetheart, The Robert Englund Story reinforces how warm Englund is both inside and out. 

Filmmakers Chris Griffiths and Gary Smart know the main event here is A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it takes just over forty minutes for the film to get to this life-changing part of Englund’s life. The great thing is that this allows us time to highlight Robert’s unsung earlier roles as a character actor, as well as his overall background. Born in 1947, Englund was pressured into being a lawyer by his father, but once acting came into the picture, all bets were off. Robert, exposed to the world of theatre, starred on stage as everyone from Pinocchio to Peter Pan to Aladdin. Robert eventually became dissatisfied with theatre politics, wedding his high school sweetheart. His first starring role was as an albino in 1974’s Buster and Billie. From here, he worked steadily, including with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Stay Hungry at “the peak of his beauty.”

His first horror film was Tobe Hooper’s bizarro second feature, Eaten Alive. Englund began building a reputation at playing 70s southern rednecks. Some of the roles he auditioned for but didn’t get included John Travolta’s role in Carrie, and the role of Han Solo in Star Wars. After coming to the small screen in sci-fi television hit V, Englund felt something changing. He started to get recognized in public, secretly becoming a bigger star than he had ever imagined. With a window of free time during V, Englund had time to fit in a little movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Englund recalls greasing back his hair with oil and discoloring the bags under his eyes to impress Wes craven at the audition. The actor under the makeup is perhaps even more important than the writing, direction, or even the makeup itself—no one has been able to successfully play Freddy Krueger other than Englund himself. For Nightmare 2, the studio tried a doppelgänger, but he was unmistakably not Englund. The film breezes through some of the Nightmare sequels, spending time on nearly every entry in the series. As Freddy grew into a pop culture phenomenon, Englund’s ego never inflated. One of my favorite stories he shares here is that his father visited his son on set during the filming of Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master on the day he was practically glued to a pillar during the chest of souls sequence. What a way to see your son thriving in the workplace! Actress Tuesday Knight describes seeing Freddy on set for the first time as being in awe of his “swaggering, sexy villain,” which is a weird way to view a child killer/molester, but welcome to the complicated world of being a horror fan. 

A lengthy amount of time devoted to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a very meta iteration of the franchise that should have been a game changer for horror, made me happy as a huge fan of this underrated entry. Miko Hughes and Heather Langenkamp speak fondly of Wes and the film, reminiscing of their time on set with a warm Englund. By the time Englund gets around to discussing Freddy vs. Jason, I was surprised that the age-old debate over wanting the movie to be Robert Englund vs. Kane Hodder emerge anew. Director Ronny Yu (who also revitalized Chucky in Bride of Chucky) wanted Jason to be a silent lumbering giant with a much bigger physicality, so only Ken Kirzinger was the right fit. Hearing Englund’s unfiltered thoughts and behind-the-scenes insights was truly a treat as someone who grew up loving this horror series. Who knew there was a hot tub waiting nearby the Crystal Lake set for warmth?

Englund’s directorial debut in 976-Evil was described as a particularly unpleasant experience, but it did at least introduce him to his wife Nancy, who was a set decorator. The two have been married for thirty years and counting, bonding as she was forced to drive him and the location manager all around scouting for filming spots. Englund starred in a surprising amount of other movies I loved not associated with Freddy, including Wishmaster, The Paper Brigade, and my personal favorite, 2001 Maniacs. Actress Lin Shaye looks back on their time sharing the stage together with fondness as two consummate detail-oriented professionals who care deeply about their craft. The ending of Maniacs was originally entirely different, but logistical filming problems resulted in big changes that were pretty much facilitated entirely by Shaye and Englund putting their heads together.

Apart from segments on Englund’s first failed marriage and a second one to his supportive second wife, the focus here is more on career and filmography than on personal insights or struggles. As a movie lover, I was perfectly okay with this. I would hesitate to call this an impeccably made doc, considering some occasionally spotty editing, and sampling of footage that can often be poor quality. Minor flaws cannot stop Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares from being a loving tribute well worth the wait. This documentary is so thorough that it even delves into Englund’s appearances on The Goldbergs and in Stranger Things 4 that exposed the actor to a new generation of younger fans. The convention scene and Englund’s special connection with his fans are also brought to light. That Englund views his career as a happy accident is so sweet and humble—without the talent and charisma he brings to the screen, the landscape of horror in the 80s would look completely different.

Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story slashes onto SCREAMBOX on Tuesday, June 6th.

Leave a Reply