IT’S BEEN SAID THAT IF A SHARK STOPS moving, it will die. Well, I’ve gotta work or I’m dead in the water. And I’m not talking about some surfing accident. I don’t care whether a movie of mine makes $1 or $1 billion; I’ll probably be in front of or behind the camera until the final “Cut” is called.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a working character actor is that, in addition to the luminaries previously mentioned in this tome, over the years on both the big screen and the small screen, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to hit my marks with some of the best in the business, among them Hal Holbrook, James Earl Jones, Sissy Spacek, Lou Gossett, Brian Cox, Pat Hingle, and Jack Warden.
I appeared on two of the more popular sitcoms of the late ’90s: Married … With Children, and The Jamie Foxx Show—two lovely experiences. (On our lunch break, I overheard Jamie playing Gershwin on the piano on an empty soundstage. Magical.) And along with Stephen Colbert, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Fred Willard, Virginia Madsen, Mike Myers, and practically everyone else in Hollywood, including an un-credited Ben Stiller, I appeared in a nasty little showbiz parody called Nobody Knows Anything,which—in yet another Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of coincidence—starred my Hollywood Monster co-writer Alan Goldsher’s pal, David Pasquesi.
Hell, I even dabbled in reality television. Screw Survivor. Fuck Big Brother. I had Reel Nightmares.
In 2004, an award-winning director/producer/writer/jack-of-all-television named Star Price came up with another winning idea: send the guy who played Freddy Krueger all over the country to interview people about their scariest, sickest nightmares, then set up a soundstage in L.A., turn their dreams into a frightening reality, and haul their asses out to Hollywood to live through their nightmares on camera. This was reality television, baby. Star, who went on to produce and direct most every episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, clearly had his finger on the pulse of the new media phenomenon (knew his shit), and I wanted in.
Reel Nightmares had what I considered a distinctive format. In the beginning of each episode, I’d visit our victim’s neighborhood, taking a shortcut through a dark alley or over a backyard fence, then I’d approach the front door and knock. In my best Vincent Price inflection, I would announce: “Hello. My name is Robert Englund, and I understand there’s a nightmare on your street.” We’d then cut to me sitting in their living room and grilling them about their most demented dreams. While they recounted these very personal nightmares, I’d ask them all sorts of probing psychological questions that made everybody uncomfortable, myself included. After we watched the footage, we took the best-of-the-best subjects and sent them to speak with our legal department, to make sure they weren’t litigious or nuts or completely full of shit. Then, once they jumped through all the legal and ethical hoops, it was off to California, where they’d get to find out just how much fun it is to be on Elm Street. The best part is that we had a nice budget, and while you can scare the crap out of somebody with a small budget, it’s certainly easier to make somebody puke or poop or pee their pants when your pockets are deep.
Despite that Star, our intrepid Reel Nightmares skeleton crew, and I gave it our all—we’re talking back-to-back cross-country flights from Chicago to Los Angeles, cheap fleet puddle jumpers from Atlanta to Little Rock, combined with multiple all-nighters—we never made it on the air. If I were casting blame—and I’m not, mind you—but if I were, I’d have to point my finger at Fear Factor. Mind you, I have no animosity toward Joe Rogan. It’s just that his show’s success kind of fucked us.
In both television and film, networks and studios tend to stick with a concept or a format that’s already proven to be a winner. For instance, for the three years after Friends became a hit, I would estimate that three out of every five new sitcoms featured an ensemble of twentysomethings trying to find themselves in the big city. The reasoning behind that is obvious—every new product is a gamble, and producers want to stack the decks in their favor—but that sometimes means that a more original project gets shelved.
It shouldn’t have surprised anybody on the Reel Nightmares team that most of the networks’ notes encouraged us to focus on finding people whose dreams were about being scared of snakes or bugs, or eating monkey brains. Thing is, chilling in a snake-filled bathtub and chowing down on a goat-bladder soufflé had already been done, so the shock value and the sense of newness were gone. To us, Fear Factor gross was already passé. The networks’ attitudes pissed Star and me off because when we veered away from the Fear Factor vibe, we found we had something original and special.
One of our strongest segments featured a young lady who was petrified of clowns, which apparently, a surprising number of people can relate to. (Me, I’m not scared of clowns at all. Fuck them. I can kick a clown’s ass any day of the week. Okay, that’s sheer bravado. The fact of the matter is, if you want to give me a mild freak-out, stick me in an elevator with Bozo.) We took this poor girl and locked her in a turn-of-the-century Victorian mansion near downtown Los Angeles, where she was hunted by a posse of psycho clowns—think Cirque de Soleil channeled through the Jim Rose Circus—all decked out in the scariest, smeared, avant-garde makeup you’ve seen this side of, well, Freddy Krueger.
We hid those killer clowns all over the house in some pretty strange positions, the two freakiest being the one who was submerged in a blood-filled bathtub, and the one inside a jerry-rigged medicine cabinet, waiting to lunge when she came looking for sleeping pills. Gotcha! Hidden cameras were everywhere: in the ceiling, beneath the floorboards, behind mirrors—clown-cams were even attached to some of the tormentors. None of this was a surprise for our subject; we followed her blueprint, and she knew what was coming. But then she had to experience our reconstruction of her deepest fears. When I saw the raw footage, it was intense stuff. Suffice it to say, I was glad I wasn’t in her clown shoes.
Yes, the Fear Factor paradigm cost us, but what killed us in the end was the legal red tape. Most of our subjects didn’t pass the psychological vetting; I’m not sure what criteria they used, but if our lawyers saw even the slightest hint of a red flag, they put the kibosh on the contestant, protecting our backs in the event of a lawsuit or a nervous breakdown … or suicide by clown. We pushed the envelope too hard, so unfortunately Reel Nightmares never saw the light of day. It was disappointing because we had all worked so hard and were so close to getting the show just right.
WORKING ON REEL NIGHTMARES took up most of 2004, which meant that I had to turn down a number of other projects, projects I might not have been offered had Freddy vs. Jason not turned into such a megahit. I had to pass on one job that was shooting in Italy, and another that was set near a resort in Mexico. I don’t recall if the scripts were any good, but after a year of shuttling around feeder city airports chasing down damaged dreamers, the thought of taking a vacation while I was working was pretty damn appealing.
After a couple weeks of R&R, I started plowing through the pile of screenplays that had been building by my bedside. A number of them were quite good, and, me being me, I said yes to those I liked. I starred with Bob Shaye’s sister Lin in a funky retro slasher flick 2001 Maniacs, written and directed by an old acquaintance, Tim Sullivan. (Fans of There’s Something About Mary will remember Lin as Cameron Diaz’s obnoxious dog-owning, saggy-titted neighbor.) I’d known Tim since his days as an assistant to Michael DeLuca at New Line. Tim had been associate producer on a little gem of a film, Detroit Rock City, which starred one of my favorite underground actors, Giuseppe Andrews. Tim wrote and tailored the role of Mayor Buckman for my peculiar talents and promised me I’d get to work with Giuseppe. How could I say no? There was plenty of blood and gore, tits and ass, and Vaudeville-style violence—Tim and I often refer to that sort of collision of styles as “splatstick.”
In 2005, I again reunited with good ol’ Tobe Hooper for an episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series called Dance of the Dead. We shot it up in Vancouver, on the set of Jessica Alba’s TV show Dark Angel. In Dance of the Dead, an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story, I played a postapocalyptic emcee at a nightclub where we inject dead strippers with a serum that reanimates them and they commence a spastic death-dance, hence the title. Tobe had a great budget to work with and went all out, and to this day I feel it’s one of the edgiest hours of television produced for cable. It’s Peckinpah-violent, decadent, kinky, and driven by a percussive, post-punk soundtrack.
Almost immediately after we wrapped, I was once again out in the hot Santa Clarita boondocks to cameo in Hatchet. This time out I played—are you ready for this?—a victim! I met my fate in a backlot swamp and my killer was none other than Kane Hodder, everybody’s favorite Jason Voorhees. Kane portrayed Victor Crowley, a deformed madman, and was under more makeup than I’d ever had to wear, plus a prosthetic hunchback. I felt his pain.
And then came a Sam-Loomis-meets-Van-Helsing turn in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a distinctly Blair Witch-y flick that won critical praise. Then it was up to Toronto for Heartstopper, where I played a small-town sheriff and got my ass kicked by a serial killer. Again in Canada, this time Ottawa, I shot the horror comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, in which I played a community college science teacher who gets possessed by a cursed, black heart. And then in 2008, I costarred with Jenna Jameson in Zombie Strippers! (yes, there was an exclamation mark in the title), wishing the whole time that I’d been given the opportunity when I was fourteen. Victims? Doctors? Sheriffs? Professors? Hanging out with porn stars? Man, you take off the makeup, and next thing you know, they’re casting you as professional types who contribute to society. Yikes.
These assorted retro-horror projects didn’t garner Nightmare numbers at the box office, but they all found loyal, appreciative audiences, I think in part as a reaction to the big, overproduced special effects extravaganzas that relied too much on all of Hollywood’s new toys and gadgets. Don’t get me wrong: toys and gadgets can be a blast, but instead of inspiring writers and directors to greater heights, the new technology tends to make people ignore script, story, and plot problems. Too often you’ll hear on the set of a blockbuster-in- the-making that’s running five weeks behind schedule and $5 million over budget, “We’ll fix it in post.” FX should be used as enhancement, not as a Band-Aid for something you overlooked during pre-production or screwed up during principal photography.
Audiences know when you are relying on explosions and CGI because your story sucks or your scares aren’t there. And I think their frustration led to a nostalgia for good old blood ‘n’ guts and cheap thrills. Fortunately, a generation of young filmmakers—Eli Roth, Adam Green, Scott Glosserman, Tim Sullivan, to name a few—understand this and look to Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter for inspiration, rather than their Mac Pro. If you want to put it in a musical context, it reminds me of the late 1970s, when rock fans got fed up with balding supergroups and prog-rock jerk-offs, instead choosing to embrace loud minimalist punkers such as MC5, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and the New York Dolls. Iggy et al. were alternatives to the bloat in the music industry, and breathed a new life into the art form by reexamining the root source of rock ’n’ roll. Splatstick, retro-slasher, and torture porn were embracing the roots of horror and had discovered an audience, and I understood why. It was the garage rock of horror. The fact that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise and Wes’s Scream trio had set the table for the horror/comedy mash-up didn’t hurt either.
All the retro-oriented work brought me back to the beginning of my horror career, but it was actually several years prior when everything really came full circle.
IN 1999, I WAS invited to the Rome Fanta Film Festival, where I was honored with a retrospective of my work. While there, I met the directing team of Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco, who invited me to Sicily to speak to an audience of teens from housing projects on the outskirts of Palermo. Why would these gentlemen want to use the actor who plays Freddy Krueger to talk movies with these kids? Turns out that Cipri and Maresco had built an audience-friendly boutique cinema right there in the middle of what could be termed a suburban wasteland. I suspect their thinking was along the lines of, These kids all know who Freddy Krueger is, and perhaps Robert can inspire them to appreciate quality movies and perhaps motivate them to pursue film careers. Plus it’ll keep them off the streets.
When I walked into their theater, the first thing I saw in the lobby was an Italian poster of my 1978 surfer movie, Big Wednesday, retitled Un Mercoledì da Leoni. Right next to that was a poster for one of my favorite horror films in history, Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Cipri, Maresco, and I were most definitely on the same wavelength, so I wasn’t at all surprised when the following year they asked me to be the first American to star in one of their films.
In the spring and summer of both 2001 and 2002, I went to Sicily, where Cipri and Maresco directed me in a black comedy called The Return of Cagliostro, or, for you Italian linguists out there, Il Ritorno di Cagliostro. The Cagliostro of the title was Alessandro Cagliostro, a real-life Italian huckster who lived in the eighteenth century. Cagliostro claimed to be the son of the prince and princess of the Anatolian Christian kingdom of Trebizond, but in reality, good ol’ Al was born into poverty and bullshitted his way through life as an alchemist, magician, and con man, gaining fame when he became involved in a diamond scam with Marie Antoinette. Good ol’ Al intrigued many a film producer, and he’s been depicted by Orson Welles (Black Magic in 1949), and Christopher Walken (The Affair of the Necklace in 2001), and Robert Englund. Well, sort of by Robert Englund.
In Cipri and Maresco’s take on the Cagliostro story, I was playing an over-the-hill American actor who was conned into going to Italy by Lucky Luciano to play good ol’ Al in a bogus movie that existed strictly to launder mob money through the Catholic church. (To represent my character’s Hollywood pedigree, he was named Erroll Douglas. That’s “Erroll” as in “Flynn,” and “Douglas” as in “Kirk.”) The movie within the movie is purposely horrible, so the high-concept, one-sentence pitch for the project might’ve been, “It’s The Producers meets Bugsy set in Italy in the 1950s.” I’d pay my ten bucks to see something like that.
Since it happened over two summers, in a sense this was the longest film shoot I’d ever been a part of, but that wasn’t because Cipri and Maresco, darlings of the Left and committed auteurs who many consider to be Italy’s answer to the Coen brothers, were perfectionists. What slowed them down was that they insisted on peppering the cast with non-actors. Not novice actors. Not bad actors. Non-actors! Some of them couldn’t quite remember their lines or hit their marks or do a scene the same way twice. On the other hand, several were comic originals, and had developed a cult following in Italy, so Cipri and Maresco were perfectly content with their eccentricities. I wasn’t sure where I fit into all of this, but, trouper that I am, I put on my metaphorical crash helmet, strapped in, and went along for the ride.
Early on, we were shooting a scene in a subterranean wine cellar at an old villa on the coast outside Palermo. The cellar set was lit entirely by the torches mounted on the wall and held by the other actors and extras in the scene. (Cipri and Maresco loved the quality of light provided by the smoky torches.) My character was supposed to throw a tantrum in the scene, which prompted me to pitch a diva fit of my own; however, mine was completely justified.
After a few takes, we all started getting lethargic because the fire was sucking the oxygen out of the room, and I thought, Shit, this is A Nightmare on Elm Street all over again. One of the non-actors got so oxygen-deprived that he slid down the wall and onto the floor. As he nodded off, his torch slowly tipped over and it almost ignited the hem of one of the “priest’s” cassock costumes.
I snapped. I lost it. “What the hell are you doing?” I roared. “There are no fire extinguishers on the set and the cellar door is fucking closed!” I stormed over to the ancient doors and threw them open. After about five more minutes of ranting and raving, I clammed up; and fortunately, no animals or humans were harmed in the making of The Return of Cagliostro.
The film safety notwithstanding, this region of Italy was a magnificent place to shoot, utterly timeless, with acres of rolling hills and ancient vineyards, crumbling villas, and ruins. We were so far removed from civilization that sometimes the only sound to be heard was the cooing of pigeons, or the clockwork tolling of church bells.
For a while, my dressing room was in the basement of a monastery. On the plaster wall, somebody had written PREGATE! PREGATE! PREGATE! in blood. (Pregate means “pray.”) By the time the second summer of shooting rolled around, I was so sick of the tights that Erroll Douglas wore for the sham Cagliostro movie-within-a-movie that I was pregate-ing for a wardrobe change.
One afternoon, there was a tentative knock at my dressing-room door. I opened it, and there stood the cutest little Italian punk-rock girl on that historic island. She had a delicate ring in her nose and fine, gold thread laced up her earlobe, a map of tattoos, and black bangs that contrasted beautifully with her porcelain skin. My first thought was, What’s she doing in a monastery? Then she brought in some crisp white linens, some mismatched fine china, a soup terrine, and what appeared to be the family silver. Turned out she was the set caterer, and what a caterer she was. There, in the middle of the Sicilian countryside, I was served one of the finest meals I’d ever had, five perfect courses that would probably have cost about three bills in Manhattan. The coup de grâce was a limoncello that her grandfather had decanted that morning. Craft service in the States was never like this.
On my second-to-last morning shooting in Palermo, I woke up and my legs were covered with blood. The white sheets on my hotel bed were a disaster, so bloody that I thought there might be a decapitated horse head under the blankets. I jumped out of bed, and noticed my thighs were covered with scratches. My first thought: bedbugs. Nope. Not even close. Turned out that those tights I’d been wearing—which had been on loan from an old opera company—were infested with lice. It was time to go home.
But it was all worth it. Cagliostro was released in 2003, shortly before Freddy vs. Jason opened worldwide, and that fall, Cipri, Maresco, our producers, and I were invited to the Venice Film Festival for the premiere of our film.
The lights went down.
The projector fired up.
The film played.
The credits rolled.
The lights went up.
The crowd rose as one, and we got a ten-minute standing ovation.
They wouldn’t stop. Seriously, they wouldn’t fucking stop. It went on, and on, and on, and finally I accepted it. I got a lump in my throat, my face went hot, and tears spilled onto my cheeks. It was one of the greatest moments in my life, and feeling all that respect from my fellow film lovers, I wondered, to quote David Byrne, Well, how did I get here?
The route, as circuitous as it was, was beautiful in its symmetry. A showbiz-adjacent California boy … a kid fascinated with Lon Chaney … children’s theater star … a teenage surfer … twentysomething Anglophile stage snob … 70s indie-film chameleon … television alien lizard … international iconic bogeyman … and finally, post-millennium indie-film character actor once again. Along with the masks of comedy and tragedy, I’d worn the mask of Freddy Krueger close to twenty years and I was finally comfortable to retire it.