Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story Is a Thorough Look at a Remarkable Career
The doc is a horror fan’s treat, and a look back at ’70s Hollywood alchemyMovies Features Robert Englund
The only thing I can think, when I see slasher movies about murderers who are built like brick shithouses is: How much fun must it be to be that guy?
Plenty of actors are of the opinion that playing villains is way more fun than being the hero, and there are certainly actors for whom a big ugly mug and a beastly physique are assets—ask Kane Hodder (as the filmmakers of new documentary Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story did). Englund, the man beneath the fedora (and pounds of prosthetic makeup) of Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, is a unique specimen even in a lineup that includes Hodder or Boris Karloff or any of cinema’s indelible boogeymen. Englund, as the documentary shows viewers over the course of its two-hour runtime, looks like a regular guy, even kind of a sweetheart. It’s just that he’s such an incredible actor and genre stalwart that, more than 40 years into his screen career, he’s finally becoming known by name instead of just as That Guy Who Plays Freddy Krueger—and not just by horror enthusiasts.
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story is an exhaustive, chronological history of Englund’s acting career, from his forays into stage acting as a youth to his current status as a hot get for horror films: The man’s output in the last 15 years alone (without even counting all of his voiceover work) is prolific across the board, but he continues to be a draw in horror movies and genre TV shows like Supernatural and Stranger Things.
If you wonder why—wonder what it is about this bright-eyed man with a disarming smile that’s made him a horror icon—Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares is here to make several arguments. One that is repeated time and again by everybody in the doc, from fans to costars and co-creators across five decades, is that Englund is a really generous guy with his time, his praise and his expertise. Talking heads from throughout Englund’s career—Heather Langenkamp, Eli Roth, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Lin Shaye, and Hodder are just a handful of notables—all have a story about a time Englund’s kindness and professionalism carried them through a tough situation.
The other common thread that the doc and its talking heads come back to again and again is just that the guy can act far better than the industry has ever really given him credit for. “Robert,” opines one interviewee, “is better than anything he’s been in.” The movie does the man a service by going back over his years of training and work as a journeyman character actor in ’70s flicks to show how he became the consummate professional he now is. In doing so, it’s also a (far too brief) look back at a wild and transformative period in Hollywood.
Englund came up during the gritty years following the true upending of Hollywood’s golden age, a time of counterculture, when new blood was making new movies, with experimental, non-traditional methods and sensibilities. Englund, who shared the screen with Jeff Bridges, Susan Sarandon and Burt Reynolds in his time, was at the center of some of that Hollywood alchemy. The doc retells one particularly notable bit of trivia: Englund read for Star Wars but didn’t get a part, though he did recommend that a friend of his give the audition a shot. That friend was Mark Hamill (who obviously did get a part, and, funnily enough, has also gone on to portray an iconic ghoulish baddie).
The doc’s chronological ordering can sometimes be a weakness: A lot of the stuff that people want to know the most about is, of course, going to be the 1980s, when Englund stepped into the role that made him immortal. And the movie does truly relish everything about Englund’s time portraying Freddy Krueger, the child-killing (we’re pretending we’ve forgotten about the child molesting) demon who hunts people down in their dreams. Hollywood Dreams is less concerned with the origin story of the Krueger character or director Wes Craven’s films than it is with the man who stepped into the makeup and prosthesis.
It’s an opportunity for the movie to offer up some thoughts on what constitutes a good monster performance, or a good performance under pounds and pounds of uncomfortable latex. (In one scene, Englund said he felt a jolt of envy and resentment, seeing his younger costars arrive on set long after he had begun hours in the makeup chair. He bottled it and used it for the character, of course.) Englund, the film argues, is the essential element of the character: Not the makeup, not the costume, not the claw, not one nightmarish looking rig with writhing arms and faces that he at one point had to be strapped to for hours and hours on the one day his very skeptical father came to visit him on set.
To make its point, the movie lingers for a while on the crossover movie Freddy vs. Jason, which declined to cast Hodder in the role of Jason Voorhees. Apparently they didn’t want the guy who had originated the role, and the movie uses its interview subjects to reflect on how thinking that casting just any big bruiser to wear a hockey mask is to misunderstand what actors do, even when you take away their ability to use their face or their voice.
The movie also, it should be said, gives Englund the time and space to reflect on how his legacy is going to inescapably be tied up with the character of Freddy Krueger, something that he freely admits causes him no small amount of regret even as it also connects him to legions of fans. All the same, it’s not the sum of the actor, and if anything, his late-career work shows that the industry has realized this.
Even as far back as 2006, a good decade after the Nightmare films were in the rearview, Englund starred in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which is one of my favorite of his movies by far. The movie is a mockumentary with a bizarre premise: The crew is following around an aspiring serial killer named Leslie Vernon, and the laws of the world they are in treat this as a completely normal thing, as if graduating into a full-blown serial killer is like asking a girl to cotillion or something. Englund shows up, not as the big baddie, but as “the Ahab,” that is, the antagonist of the serial killer. Englund plays this completely straight and as a clear homage to Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films, and he’s great. He’s heroic and earnest, serving this quirky little movie with every ounce of his ability while paying a compliment to a late, great genre actor who, like Englund, always brought his A game to the grindhouse.
Hollywood Dreams and Nightmares: The Robert Englund story is a love letter to the man, but also to that kind of dedication. It’s a comprehensive look back at his life, and a great catalog of the parts of his filmography you really, really should get around to seeing.