Robert Englund is a classically trained veteran actor and a bona fide horror icon. While heís been somewhat out of the spotlight in recent years, he remains one of the most recognizable faces in the horror genre. Over the course of his long and colorful acting career, he played demonic serial killers and sex-crazed maniacs, as well as classic literary characters and historical figures. Heís been nominated twice for the prestigious Saturn award, while also receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. A beloved cult figure and one of the most prolific performers out there, but was his massive potential ever fully realized? Letís dig in...
Very few actors manage to create a truly iconic character in the course of their career and Englund is one of those select few. You all know who Iím talking about, so I might as well just spit it out Ė Freddy Krueger is Robert Englundís greatest role and a true cinema icon. Too obvious? Perhaps, but I canít just ignore the magnitude and legacy of one of the greatest movie villains of all time for the sake of trying to be original. Iíll go as far as to say Freddy IS Englund. He made the character his own many times over and no actor could ever possibly take that away from him. The 2010 remake proved this all too well Ė if Jackie Earle Haley couldnít do it (although to be fair, the man gave all he had to squeeze some life out of the lazy, unimaginative script), whoever the hell can?†
Now, which of Englundís numerous appearances as Freddy should be considered the best is another question altogether. While you could argue that some of the later entries in the series (most notably DREAM WARRIORS) allowed Englund to develop the character and add some of his trademark comedy into the mix, to me itís still a no-brainer Ė the honor must go to the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Not only did it introduce Freddy as a horror icon, while at the same time being a ferociously original and all around awesome film, but it also maintained the right balance of scares and dark humor Ė a trait that was lost in the latter entries in the series, which opted for straight up comedy and corny one-liners. Englundís original performance as Freddy is simply faultless. The limited screen time only helps to build up the mystery and a sense of dread, without overexposing the villain, who manages to be scary and menacing, but with more humor and character than other horror icons of the time. In fact, while most people understandably pile the character on top of other famous 80s slasher villains, Iíve always looked at Englund as an heir to the classic horror stars, such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee. Sure, there were dozens of actors portraying the characters of Frankenstein or Dracula over the years, but it was stars like the aforementioned trio that completely made them their own. Case in point, while Jason or Michael Myers were portrayed by multiple actors throughout the course of their on-screen existence, Freddy always went the Highlander route Ė there could be only one! And his name was Robert Englund.
I have to say, this one is probably the toughest to pick, for one simple reason Ė Robert Englund has done a lot of movies, and I do mean A LOT. With well over a hundred roles under his belt, itís understandable that not all of them could have been masterpieces. On the other hand, itís also hard to pinpoint a flat-out bad performance from Englund himself Ė the man is a pro and he tends to shine even when cast in utter garbage. I could name ten crappy straight-to-DVD movies heís been in, but with every single one I can think of, it turns out that Englundís role was actually one of the very few elements that made the thing bearable. Sure, his role in the schlocky 2000 killer snake romp PYTHON was nothing to write home about, but next to the crappy CGI reptile and Casper Van Dienís WTF-inducing fake accent, Englundís turn was nothing short of Shakespearean. Another example? How about the bland and utterly forgettable 1998 teen slasher URBAN LEGEND? You want to guess the sole reason why I can even remember it? Bingo Ė Englund. And he didnít even have that big of a role in it. Itís the same with every one of his less-than-stellar films Ė even if it sucks, Englundís just having fun with it and doing the best he can with his (usually limited) screen time.†
On the other hand, I guess I could take the easy way out and simply point at his worst turn as Freddy. That honor would undeniably have to go to FREDDYíS DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, which pretty much turned the character into a complete mockery and tarnished the seriesí reputation until Wes Craven managed to shake off the stench with his NEW NIGHTMARE. Still, I feel that somehow wouldnít be fair, as even on his worst day, Englundís Freddy is still a fun and altogether memorable character. You know what? Letís just go with PYTHON. That flick wasnít much of a boon to anyone involved.
In some ways, I canít help but think that the role of Freddy Krueger was both a blessing and a curse for Englund. While it gained him worldwide renown and established him as a horror icon, it also undoubtedly tied him to the genre, closing off some doors and making some filmmakers hesitant to give him a chance in straight up dramatic or comedic roles Ė ironic, considering that he always did a little of both as Freddy. Itís a bit of a shame, because when you strip away all the accumulated NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET legacy, youíre left not with a hack who got his lucky break playing a memorable character, but an extremely talented and versatile actor. Which Englund continued to prove any chance he would get. Whether it was the loveable alien Willie in the TV series V or the balls-out lunatic Smiley in THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE Ė Englund never felt out of place. There was never a role too big for him, not a single pair of shoes he couldnít fill.
Unfortunately, when the classic ELM STREET series ran its course, he could never get the opportunity to fully utilize his potential, being offered mostly supporting roles that didnít give him the chance to show off his acting chops to the fullest. One of the films that best displayed his capabilities was surely Dwight H. Littleís THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, where Englund portrayed the titular role. You can see shades of Freddy in his performance as the classic anti-hero, but this time the actor injected a lot more humanity into the mix, making the Phantom a truly sympathetic (even if at times despicable) character. Itís also much less over the top than what he was used to at this point (it was 1989 and Englund was still in full on Krueger mode), which only goes to show how versatile an actor he really is.†
Another trademark feature of Englund that I canít help but address is just how much of a cool dude and a genuinely nice guy he feels like. Clearly, all I have to go on in this respect are interviews and behind the scenes materials, but somehow his charm also manages to transpire into each of his roles, without overshadowing the character or making him a one note performer. Even when heís slashing some kidís throat or dropping lines like ďyour assistant is quite special, I look forward to raping her at your funeralĒ, thereís a certain suave charisma about him, that just oozes out of the screen. It may have a lot to do with his somewhat boyish physiognomy, but I think it goes deeper than that Ė the man simply has that special 'something', a unique style that only the best at this craft possess.
Despite his aforementioned versatility and being capable of moving dramatic performances, there were times when Englund simply wanted to have fun with the material he was given. No role displayed that better in recent years than his turn as the lovingly maniacal Mayor Buckman in Tim Sullivanís 2001 MANIACS. Completely over the top and positively hysterical, Englund played the leader of the crazed Southerners with the comedic zeal rivaling that of his finest moments as Freddy. If you havenít had the chance to watch the remake/semi-sequel to Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 classic 2000 MANIACS, I wholeheartedly recommend you do so. Itís easily one of the actorís most joyful and memorable performances of the past several years.
While by no means would I belittle the manís achievements, it has to be said that Englund hasnít had a truly memorable role in a while. Which is a damn shame, as Iíd love him to get the chance to shine on the screen once again and prove to the audience at large that there is far more to him than Freddy Krueger. I remain hopeful that heíll get it. The man is no spring chicken, but at the ripe age of 65 he thankfully doesnít seem to be thinking of retirement anytime soon. As usual, he currently has a couple of upcoming projects, including STRIPPERS VS. WEREWOLVES (hitting home video this summer) and LAKE PLACID: THE FINAL CHAPTER Ė yet another installment in the killer croc series, which will go straight to TV. The former already premiered in the UK earlier this year, having reportedly made as little as £38 on its opening weekend (playing in only two theaters with a total of four people in attendance). Ouch! In any case, hereís the synopsis:
When werewolf chief Jack Ferris is accidentally killed in a strip club, the girls who work there have until the next full moon before his bloodthirsty wolfpack seek murderous retribution.
When all is said and done, Robert Englund has had a long and amazing career so far and many an actor would gladly jump ass first onto Freddyís glove to achieve a similar level of success. While he will go down in history first and foremost as the man behind Freddy's iconic makeup (a role which he embraced and seemed to enjoy every minute of), anyone whoís willing to look past the surface (and the scar tissue) will always know him for what he truly is Ė an exceptionally talented actor. If anyone deserves the status of a horror legend, itís Englund.