While catnapping in the hour before dawn during the filming of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was awakened by rapping on my trailer door. The second assistant director was calling for me on set. I sat up disoriented, in the half-light of the dimmed makeup mirror bulbs. I caught a glimpse of movement in the shadowed depths of the mirror. Groggy from sleep, distracted by my morning-mouth breath, I was shocked to see a disfigured, bald man staring back at me. My heart skipped a beat or five, and then I realized it was just Freddy staring back at me. I’d forgotten I was still in makeup. The knocking resumed and I recovered from my momentary fright. However, that image of Freddy deep in the shadows, mimicking my movements in the mirror like some Marx Brothers bit from hell has stayed with me to this day.
IN THE MID-EIGHTIES, EVEN IF YOUR movie was a hit, a sequel wasn’t guaranteed—the Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark franchises notwithstanding. Today, films go into production with a blueprint for as many as five follow-ups—probably sequel scripts for fifteen Batman flicks are sitting on some producer’s shelf—but back then, it was one at a time, and if you were offered the opportunity for a “part two,” you were grateful.
They offered me a Nightmare “part two.” I was grateful.
I hadn’t made much money on the first one—the biggest chunk of our “budget” (yes, those quotation marks denote sarcasm) went toward makeup and effects—and it soon became clear during my contract negotiations that I wasn’t going to get rich on Freddy’s Revenge either. But I’d had a great time on the first movie, which had garnered quite the cult audience, plus the shoot was in the summer, during my hiatus for V, so I signed on the dotted line and prepared myself once again to commit murder and mayhem. When New Line sent me the script, I couldn’t have been happier with my decision, because the story felt right.
But something about the interesting plot bothered me: one of the major rules that Wes had established on A Nightmare on Elm Street had been broken—Freddy was taken out of the dreams. In Nightmare 2, Freddy would be allowed to manifest outside of the dreamscape. It didn’t hurt the quality of the script, but it messed up the continuity. On the plus side, I thought the bisexual-slash-homoerotic subtext was edgy and contemporary, and I appreciated how the plot investigated both the social-class system and the rise of suburban malaise. This may sound pretentious and overanalytical, but I believe that Freddy represented what looked to be a bad future for the postboomer generation. It’s possible that Wes believed the youth of America were about to fall into a pile of shit—virtually all the parents in the Nightmare movies were flawed, so how could these kids turn out safe and sane?—and he might have created Freddy to represent a less-than-bright future.
I was the only major cast member from A Nightmare on Elm Street to return for the sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, but Johnny, Heather, et al. weren’t the only missing faces. David Miller, my beloved makeup man, was busy with The Terminator, Cocoon, and the fifth installment of the Friday the 13 th series. He was replaced by Kevin Yagher, brother of Jeff Yagher, one of my costars from V. Nightmare 2 was only Kevin’s third movie, but he was so talented that in time he became one of the heavyweights of the industry. In 1988, he created Chucky for the Child’s Play film franchise, then, eleven years later, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of coincidence, Kevin wrote and coproduced the Johnny Depp flick Sleepy Hollow.
Kevin and I were instant friends. Creatively speaking, he had a different style from David Miller, whose makeup was slightly thicker and more dramatic. With David, if the camera was farther away and the light was just right, Freddy’s features were easier to delineate. With Kevin, the closer the camera got, the better it looked. I liked them both, and I never found out why David was replaced. Maybe it was about money. Maybe everybody had got ulcers worrying about how the makeup would look on the first one. Or maybe they just wanted some new blood, if you will. Kevin also managed to make the facial makeup practically prophylactic, which enabled me to be more expressive—the audience would be able to see even the slightest twitch of my eye, or a tiny sneer.
Kevin was one of the funnier guys I’ve ever worked with. During the hours and hours we spent together perfecting the new Freddy face, he’d do nonstop, dead-on impressions, my favorite of which were his dialogues between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, commenting on his progress with the makeup, scolding himself in Dean’s voice if he made a mistake, and praising himself as Jerry when he liked how something looked. It was like having my own personal stand-up comedy team, and believe me, I needed it. But the most noticeable change on Freddy’s Revenge was in the director’s chair, with Jack Sholder replacing Wes Craven. One of the first foodies I’d ever met, Jack and I became fast friends. Nightmare 2 was only his second feature, the first being 1982’s Alone in the Dark, another horror flick for New Line starring Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, and Jack Palance, and cowritten by one Bob Shaye. Jack knew the horror world, he knew how to relate to his actors, he was a crack editor, and he knew where to find the best dim sum in Los Angeles. Freddy was in good hands.
No future Johnny Depp was in our cast, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have some promising kids. Kim Myers, who played Lisa, was a wonderful young actress who was making her film debut, and when I met her, the first thing that popped into my head was, Jeez, this girl bears an uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep. Meryl wasn’t quite an icon yet, but she was getting there, and I thought that having Freddy torment a teenage version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was pretty cool. And Bob Shaye, Mr. New Line himself, played a bartender at an S&M club. I’m not sure what that says about Bob, but there you have it.
This second time around, I had a better idea of what to expect on the shoot, but I was still a little nervous about the two-part fire stunt during the pool-party scene. Naturally, my stuntman would actually be dealing with the flames, but as talented as our effects team was, fire could be unpredictable.
Turned out, so could stuntmen.
My stuntman scored a bit part as one of the jocks at the party, and he had a couple lines, which pleased me because that meant he’d get a bump in pay, as well as qualify for his Screen Actors Guild card. When it came time to film the first part of the fire stunt, the guy was still on the set, finishing up his scene, so our fire wrangler asked if I could do a quick fire walk. “It’s simple,” he said. “All you have to do is go through that arbor gate over there as it spontaneously combusts from your evil energy. And you gotta do that sexy Freddy walk. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean.”
“The one thing is, you have to walk real slow. You can’t rush it. You can’t be nervous about it. You’re Freddy Fucking Krueger, and Freddy Fucking Krueger isn’t bothered by some pussy little fire.”
I said, “Yeah, but Robert Fucking Englund is.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll have water gel on your hat, and we’ll all be standing by with our fire extinguishers.” He then smiled. “We’re hoping to do a Nightmare 3, so we don’t want you to get all burned up.”
We did two passes. The first one was hot. The second one was hotter. But I survived. My sweater was smoldering, but no fire extinguishers were necessary.
I shot a couple more scenes that night, but we had to wrap before we could get much else done, because we were in Pasadena, and the Pasadena city council had decreed that any movie filming there had to shut down by 10 p.m. So as usual, because of the slow makeup removal, Kevin and I were still on the set long after everybody else left. We were drinking some beer, shooting the shit, taking our sweet old time.
When we got to the section of Freddy skin around my temple and ear, Kevin stopped. “Um, Robert?”
“We have a problem.” He didn’t say it in a Jerry Lewis voice, so I suspected he was serious.
“What kind of problem?”
“The kind of problem where some of this shit is stuck.”
Turns out that my slow walk through the fire had caused a part of the foam latex prosthetics to bond to a portion of my forehead. We spent the next five hours meticulously taking off that fused latex piece by tiny piece. Kevin only removed one of my sideburns and a small chunk of my eyebrow that night, which we considered a victory.
* * *
FOR THE FILM’S CLIMACTIC scene, we were shooting at a 1930s-era power station, an atmospheric interior that translated perfectly onto film. I was up on a perforated catwalk, portraying Freddy on his last legs. I was in the corner, down for the count, and about to get burned alive again; the scene was to be completed with an animatronic version of Freddy’s head and torso being immolated. Kevin had created the puppet, and it was an uncanny look-alike, so much so that over the years I’ve autographed hundreds of photos of that fucking dummy.
The effects crew covered my arm and sweater with more of that water gel, so I could stick my arm in the fire before turning it over to the robot for the face-melting sequence. One of the guys said, “Okay, Robert, here’s the deal. Step one, stick your hand in the fire. Step two, count to five. Step three, get the fuck out of there. Got it?”
“Hand in fire, count to five, get the fuck out. Got it. Now let’s light this candle!”
The fire was lit, Jack called action, and I watched the flames inch closer and closer to me on the catwalk railing. The fire reached my hand and I marveled at how the water gel had protected me. Sure, it was a little toasty, but there was no pain, no burning, no acrid smell of seared flesh. I watched the flickering flames. I imagined how cool I must look.
Thing is, I forgot step two. I was so hypnotized by the flames that I neglected to count.
Fortunately, I survived in one piece, but Jack wanted to try another couple of takes, so I might still get fried before the day was out. We did another take, and I forgot to count again. One of the effects guys yelled, “Jesus Christ, Robert, you’re still waiting too long to take your arm out! Count to five!”
Feeling a little woozy, I said, “Five. Right. Great.”
I quickly shook my head to clear out some cobwebs. Then I remembered one of the key lessons I’d learned on A Nightmare on Elm Street: fire eats oxygen, and without oxygen people get goofy. That ended my desire to do any more fire stunts. From that moment on, I’d leave it to the professionals. I’d grown to love Freddy, but I wasn’t ready to die for him.
I suspect that Bob Shaye, Wes Craven, et al. weren’t ready to sacrifice me for the sake of a stunt, either—especially after they got the final numbers. Nightmare 2, which cost $3 million to make, hauled in over $30 million domestically. Which begged the question, would there be a number three.