In the midst of an epic childhood reenactment of the Peter Pan versus the pirates sword fight, I was cornered against the galvanized stair treads of a heavy, stainless-steel slide. I backed my way up the stairs, and then, trapped at the top by pirates below, I threw my wooden sword in the air in surrender. Unfortunately, on its way down, it hit my best friend squarely on the top of his head. Head wounds bleed like a bitch, and upon seeing the gusher, I was as traumatized as my pal. Twelve hours later came the nightmare, in which I dueled with my friend in the sickly green hallway outside his hospital room. As blood dripped out of his scalp, he stabbed me with his blunt toy sword. Payback’s a bitch.
IN A MEMORABLE SCENE IN THE 1982 MOVIE Diner, Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, and Daniel Stern are sitting around late at night at the diner, arguing about the TV show Bonanza, and which Cartwright brother would win in a fight. That may sound silly, but on the street, at film festivals, or at virtually every sci-fi/horror/fantasy convention or Comic-Con I’ve appeared at, I’m asked, “Do you think Freddy could take Michael ‘Halloween’ Myers in a fight? Since Dracula sleeps all day, could Freddy get inside his dreams and kill him?” (Uh, does Dracula even dream?) “Mr. Englund, what do you think would happen if Freddy fought Jason from Friday the Thirteenth? Who’d win?” Legitimate questions all, and I guess they could keep you up at night if you’re fourteen years old.
Matt Groening and his pals at The Simpsons were the first to pit Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees against one another. I was invited to voice Freddy for their 1998 Halloween special, and as The Simpsons is one of contemporary pop culture’s touchstones, of course I was thrilled to offer my vocal talents. One of three segments on the show, it ran only about eight minutes, but it inspired somebody at New Line: Hey, what if we get the two most successful movie monsters of the last quarter century to duke it out?
For me, Freddy vs. Jason had been a long time coming. New Line and my agent went into discussions before the film even started preproduction; numerous writers tried to solve the plot logistics and find a justification for the megamonsters to meet. I don’t know how long the final script had been floating around—after ten years I didn’t have enough juice for script approval, and nobody was sending me copies of the endless rewrites—but it started to look as though it might be Freddy 2000, so I cleared my schedule.
New Line was having trouble deciding on a director, so the project was pushed to 2001, and again I cleared my schedule. Then it went through still more script revisions, got pushed to 2002, and this time I didn’t bother to clear my schedule. This movie had been rumored for years, and by now the fans were getting restless, posting on chat boards questions like “Is this Freddy/Jason showdown ever going to fucking happen, or what?” Finally New Line Cinema got all their ducks in a row, and I prepared to commit to Freddy vs. Jason. While they were fiddling around, I’d kept busy filming half a dozen movies, both in the States and overseas, one right after the other. I wasn’t as damaged as I had been going into Nightmare 5, but a decade had passed, and this old dog needed to do some sit-ups if he was going to duke it out in the boiler room with the goalie from hell.
For the director, our esteemed producers chose Ronny Yu, a veteran kung fu producer/director from China who, in 1998, made his first splash in the United States with Bride of Chucky. (I had actually presented an award to Ronny for Chucky with John Landis, when we both served on the jury at a boutique film festival in the French Alps.) The writing team that delivered a script everybody agreed upon, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, were pretty green, so new that their take on the confrontation between the two horror icons was actually their first script that had gone into production. They launched their career in high style, concocting a twisted, violent mix echoing the grand tradition of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
We shot in Vancouver, and for the first time a Nightmare movie had a real, honest-to-goodness budget. Let me rephrase that: we had an honest-to-goodness BUDGET. We’re talking a cool twenty-five mil, which would buy us a shitload of peanut butter. And foam latex. And glue.
I went up to Canada before any of the other actors; I had to sit through at least half a dozen makeup tests because there were going to be two versions of Freddy: “traditional” Freddy and “demonic” Freddy. (Some bloggers with no life argued that it was a Coca-Cola Classic versus New Coke situation, and we should have left well enough alone. Me, I have no problem reinventing shit.) None of the previous Nightmare makeup-effects people were on the new project, so we had to start from scratch.
Fortunately, our new makeup man Bill Terezakis had game.
A Canadian native and FX veteran of more than sixty movies, Bill has a wonderful makeup shop in the Soho-like section of Vancouver, right next door to the best Italian restaurant in the city. He had a gifted crew working for him, so I had no problem surrendering what remained of my delicate complexion to him.
Ronny Yu blew into town soon thereafter, and the two of us hit it off right away. We communicated well, and his detailed storyboards illuminated his vision and clued me in to where I fit in his frame. For a guy whose first language was Cantonese, he expressed his directorial viewpoints and goals better than half of the TV guest directors I’d worked with. Ronny was a keeper.
A COUPLE DAYS BEFORE we began filming, I was going to be introduced to the cast: first-time leading man Jason Ritter, the late, great John Ritter’s son; Kelly Rowland, Beyoncé Knowles’s right-hand woman in Destiny’s Child; and Monica Keena, who’d costarred in an underappreciated Judd Apatow TV series Undeclared and went on to portray the heartbreaking ex-love of Kevin Connolly on Entourage. For the meeting, one of our producers had picked me up at the hotel and driven me to the suburbs. When the driver said, “We’re here, Mr. Englund,” I got out of the car and was astounded to find that I was at 1428 Elm Street. This house in the middle of suburban Vancouver looked exactly like Nancy Thompson’s original Nightmare house in Springwood, Anywhere USA.
I stared at the place and said, “Jesus Christ. The art department sure did a great job on this place.”
My producer said, “Not really.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of the location scouts found it. They didn’t have to change it at all.”
My big question was, was this a coincidence, or had some obsessed Nightmare freak actually replicated the Elm Street house? Regardless of the answer, the house was perfect and a good omen for a good shoot. (The original Nightmare house just south of Sunset bordering West Hollywood has recently been lovingly restored to its vintage Elm Street splendor. Don’t tell ’em I sent ya.)
In the previous Nightmare films, my mission was to stalk and kill beautiful teenage girls, hang out in various Elm Street bedrooms, and get set on fire over and over again. That all required a fair amount of physical exertion certainly, but nothing that could be considered out of the ordinary for a horror-film heavy. There was the occasional stunt—including those motherfucking fire gags—and the inevitable, unending makeup sessions, but all in all, those shoots were painless.
On Freddy vs. Jason, however, Ronny Yu brought the pain. As an active surfer and bodyboarder, I was still in pretty decent shape, but I wasn’t a kid anymore—I was in my mid-fifties when Ronny first called “Action”—and didn’t expect that I’d be run ragged. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, was I wrong. Doing a single stunt-take wasn’t that much of a problem for me, but after repeating it from several different angles, my fiftysomething-year-old bones began to complain. But I refused to pussy out and went about my stunt work without whining. Okay, without too much whining, but that’s still pretty good for an old dog.
I’d planned to avoid fire stunts at all costs, but, since I was comfortable in the ocean, I volunteered to do my own water stunts, some of which involved being submerged in Jason’s Crystal Lake. Bill Terezakis and his team were nervous about what would happen with the makeup when I was underwater—they didn’t give a damn if I drowned, so long as their prosthetics survived intact—so when they pieced together the Freddy makeup for the underwater shoot, they lathered extra glue on my face. (Remember that this medical adhesive was originally designed for use on colostomy bags. This confirms the belief of some Nightmare critics that I was a real shithead.) Once everybody was happy with the look, into the water I went.
The stunts went off without a hitch, and, waterlogged, I slogged back to the makeup trailer, eager to get all the glue off my face. Bill’s aide-de-camp Patricia Murray went to work on me, then, after a minute, she said, “Ummm … Robert?”
“We have a problem.”
This conversation felt awfully familiar. “What kind of problem?”
“The kind of problem where some of this shit is stuck.” Talk about déjà vu. It was Nightmare 2 all over again.
“How did that happen?”
“My guess is that between the water and the chlorine and the extra glue, we got screwed.”
“You mean I got screwed.”
“So what now?” I asked.
And scrub she did. Patricia buffed my face as gently as she could with a sponge that could be used to remove burnt oatmeal from the bottom of a pot. I wasn’t freaking out because I knew she’d get it off eventually, but we’d just finished a fourteen-hour day, and as is always the case when I’m in full makeup, I didn’t eat much of anything. I was starving, and more importantly, I craved a cocktail, but unless I wanted to hit the hotel bar looking like a waterlogged demon, I’d have to suffer.
Finally, two hours later, I was free of the last of the latex, but my skin was a disaster, especially my eyes, which were so swollen that it looked as if I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Or maybe Jason Voorhees. (P.S. The next day, I pleaded with Patricia to go easy on the glue. She said she’d try her best, but she couldn’t use too little because she had to make certain that no water would seep up inside the Freddy makeup from the area where it adhered to my clavicle. If it did, she said, I’d fill up and look like a giant, used condom.)
Jason was played by Canadian stunt coordinator/stuntman Ken Kirzinger. Ken, who’s about six feet five inches and weighs a biscuit short of 275, had worked in one capacity or another on approximately one hundred films, including X/2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and The Incredible Hulk, and TV shows such as X-Files and Smallville, but here he was making what might be called his acting debut. (Ken, who was initially interviewing to be our stunt coordinator, was offered the part the second Ronny laid eyes on him. “I want Jason to be larger than life,” he told Ken, “and you’re my Jason.”) Ken and I became fast friends and drinking buddies, which is fortunate, because as an average-size guy who was going to have to film lengthy fight scenes with a giant, I needed to trust he wouldn’t squash me like a bug.
Our first night shoot of the Freddy/Jason showdown at the lake was also the first day of fall, and right on cue the temperature plummeted from the upper sixties to the middle forties, not ideal conditions for splashing around in a Canadian lake for a week. From the moment we started, it was surreal: we set the lake on fire, with Navy SEALS in arctic-issue wet suits on the scene in case one of us needed some help, and we were all freezing our collective asses off. Ken, Jason, Monica, and I kept hypothermia away by jumping into a bubbling hot tub after every take, immediately after Ronny yelled, “Cut!” Looking back, I’m not sure if it was the cold or Monica in her skimpy, wet wardrobe that kept the boys constantly hot-tubbing.
Several nights into shooting at the lake, Patricia was applying the Freddy makeup one evening when all of a sudden we heard a loud BOOM. After the trailer stopped shaking, we ran outside, and there, right in the middle of this beautiful body of water, twenty minutes from civilization, there’s a fuckin’ mini–mushroom cloud. It wasn’t Hiroshima by any means, but it was shocking nonetheless. Turned out that thanks to our setting the lake on fire three nights in a row, a gasoline slick had gotten trapped under our fake pier. One of the Teamsters was smoking a cigarette, then tossed the butt in the lake and almost blew up half of British Columbia—which didn’t exactly give me confidence as I headed into yet another fire sequence.
Yes, that’s right, I got talked into a fire stunt again. For one of our battles, Ken and I had to tussle in a small room with flame bars attached to all four walls. (Flame bars are exactly what you think they’d be: gas-fed pipes that you can light on fire on cue.) They shot the scene from Ken’s perspective first, which meant the fire was directly behind me, and that sucker was hot. Ronny—who was, it seemed, getting more sadistic by the minute—asked for take, after take, after take; he wanted to get every angle imaginable, in front of me, behind me, bird’s-eye view, between my legs. Between the flame bars, the fight action, my head encased in foam, and that goddamned striped sweater, I thought I was going to die in that tiny, overheated room.
Finally they turned the cameras around, and it was Ken’s turn to enjoy dancing with flame bars. First take, the flame bar is lit, and he saunters at me with his cool, slow Jason walk, menacingly wielding his machete, and it was perfect. Second take, fine. Third take, ditto. Unlike yours truly when I had my ass to the flames, Ken was actually enjoying his John Wayne moment and was happy to try it again and again. On take four, Ken raised his machete even more deliberately than on the previous three, and as the fire behind him crept higher and higher, Ken walked toward me menacingly, unaware that the set wall behind him was completely engulfed in flames, when all of a sudden his extended machete-wielding arm started smoking. Then his shoulder. Then his hockey mask started to steam. I’m there yelling, “Come on, Jason! Come to Papa,” while my nemesis is about to burst into flames.
He was seconds away from full dorsal incineration when I broke character and said, “Excuse me, kind sir, but it appears that your costume has suffered a bit of smoke damage, and I think it would be wise of you to vacate the premises. Immediately.” Or something to that effect. As was the case with the gas bomb at the lake, nobody was hurt. Much.
SINCE VANCOUVER CAN BE made up to look more or less like any city or suburb in the United States, a surprising percentage of Hollywood films are filmed north of the border. There are only so many nice hotels in the area, so most productions shooting there house their respective casts and crews at the same places. We shared a hotel with the gang that was shooting the second installment of the X-Men series, and on the way to work I’d take the elevator down to the lobby with the likes of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, which is every fanboy’s dream. Their shoot seemed never-ending, and aside from Patrick Stewart, who always seem to be in a good mood, practically everybody on the production was going a little crazy. (Apparently Alan Cumming was more irked than anybody else, especially when he was in FX makeup all damn day and never even got on film. Welcome to my world, Nightcrawler.)
We showbiz types hadn’t commandeered every room in the hotel; there were also a bunch of elderly Englishwomen who’d flown across the pond to enjoy Vancouver Island’s famous gardens. One morning, I got off the elevator and was greeted by the sight of Hugh Jackman besieged by half a dozen little old ladies. I thought, What the fuck is this about? They can’t be Wolverine fans.
On the way out to wait for my car, I asked the concierge, “What’s going on here? Why’s Hugh such a hit with the grannies?”
He said, “They all saw him do Oklahoma in London a few years back. He played Curly.” Then the concierge began humming “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.”
I said, “Thanks for the serenade,” then I waited for my driver to take me to the set. He was running late, so I hung in the lobby for fifteen minutes, and the entire time Hugh signed and chatted, kissed hands, and posed for photos. I’d like to point out that not a single one of these women asked me for my autograph. I guess the Oklahoma demographic and the Nightmare demographic didn’t have much crossover.
Freddy vs. Jason opened in August of 2003, and it brought in $36 million on its first weekend, well eclipsing the $25 million budget. It ended up taking in over $86 million U.S. theatrical alone and was the most lucrative film I had ever been associated with, a legitimate blockbuster, and I decided that that was it for me and Freddy. It was the right time to move on.
I assume Freddy vs. Jason attracted such a wide audience because A Nightmare on Elm Street has transcended generations; some of the fans who had seen the first Nightmare back in 1984 were now parents, many of whom were eager to introduce Freddy Krueger and the fond memory of their Nightmare on Elm Street thrills to their jaded kids.
Because, as Freddy Krueger might say, the family that plays together, slays together.