The following story contains spoilers for Stranger Things 4, Volume 1.
Even Robert Englund is creeped out by the Upside Down. After previously shooting for a role in Stranger Things 3, the horror legend—who played the infamous (and beloved) slasher villain Freddy Kreuger in eight feature films and a TV spinoff series—made a brief-but-memorable appearance in Stranger Things 4 as the incarcerated, mostly mad, and horrifically blinded Victor Creel. And while Englund's character is central to the show's mystery, he wound up watching the episodes in real time just like the rest of us. And at that point, he started figuring out just what it was that had him feeling so chilly.
"I always thought it might be the roots and everything. There are roots growing everywhere, and the branches growing everywhere. But what really creeps me out about it is there’s a surrealism to the Upside Down, and it’s very disconcerting," he says, before detailing that he realized that the imagery reminded him of a Salvador Dali coffee table book that he used to read as a child in his parents' home. "It’s really subconsciously disturbing. And if it’s disturbing to me, I know it’s disturbing to other people out there in the general audience."
The very idea of Englund's character might be disturbing to audiences too; a man returning from the horrors of war is instead unknowingly faced with an unspeakable evil in his own house. And when the worst happens to his family, there's no one left to blame but himself. Of course, when you hear that Robert Englund is going to be in Stranger Things, you aren't exactly expecting him to be the victim. But Netflix's horror smash isn't the first to use him against-type; in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, an underrated meta-take on the Freddy story, he plays a version of Freddy, yes, but also plays himself (yes, Robert Englund the actor) as a fun-loving and caring performer. In Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a mockumentary about a man who strives to be the next great serial killer, Englund's role is more Halloween's Dr. Loomis than the knife-wielding Michael Myers.
"I get used a lot as a red herring now," he says, reflecting on these different sorts of roles. "Because of the baggage I bring with my career and fame in the horror genre."
The people involved with Stranger Things know all about that baggage, and made sure that the show would address it right away. In a moment that wasn't scripted, Englund says director Shawn Levy had him scratch the table he was sitting at in his cell—not all that different from the way that Freddy Kreuger so often taps up and down with his glove/finger/knives.
"What that was, is a really absolving wink and nod to the audience: Yes, it’s Robert Englund, in make-up again. Yes, he played Freddy Kreuger. And now we can move on," he says. "We get that wink and nod and acknowledgement out of the way, and therefore, we’ve satisfied the fans’ lust for ‘80s horror cameos, or science-fiction cameos, or just ‘80s personalities, whether its Paul Reiser, Winona Ryder, or myself."
Englund's appearance in Stranger Things 4 isn't his only connection to modern-day horror; not by a long shot. Just as you would expect the man known best as Freddy to, he keeps up with the horror world. Below, the 75-year-old icon of genre details his favorite movies of the last few years, and where he thinks the "flourishing" genre still has room to grow.
Robert Englund on Recent Horror Films:
ROBERT ENGLUND: Boy, I am getting old, and there’s a lot that I’ve liked. I’ve really been impressed with this direction that the gifted Jordan Peele has gone with his two films. The idea that you could take a folk tale, and then make it into a contemporary horror story, utilizing all the components that translate to us—whether it’s a zombie fetish, or just a haunting—I just thought it was really terrific. And then to have all the implicated themes of racism that also are in Get Out, but have it still function as a pure thriller, and horror movie, at the same time. A couple of my favorite actors are also in that movie; I love Catherine Keener, and I love Lakeith Stanfield, who’s now on Atlanta.
Before that, it’s back to Robert Carlyle in 28 Days Later. I really thought that was a turning point. There are other smaller films also, like The Descent, which I thought was really tight and well-made. I really like The Witch. I really think those guys are talented—I just watched their newest movie, The Northman, which is sort of a grandiose Viking saga based on Hamlet. But it’s great; there’s something in that I’ve never seen before, which is how men psych themselves up for battle. We know the Native Americans did that, and we know certain cultures have done that. But to see it done with the Vikings, in The Northman, was disturbing, and scary, and I really like that director [Robert Eggers].
I like Midsommar, because every time you get into that Wicker Man world, I’m a sucker for that. And The Witch of course introduced us to the unbelievably unique and phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy. In all of these films, I love the new actors we were introduced to.
I just think horror is flourishing. I still think there’s some vampire world. I think that directors and writers get off track a bit with sexuality, and contemporary romantic notions of vampire. But I love that one with Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive, where the Vampires were lotion-decadent. I think there’s a door to be opened in Vampire mythology and genre that would be really fun to exploit. Not sure where it could go; maybe a retelling. Maybe a hispanic retelling of the Dracula legend in a contemporary vein, with Renfield being a low rider Cheech and Chong guy.
I think there’s a lot more left there that could be played… I don’t want to say not for horror, because it should still be a horror film, because it’s inherently horror. But I think there’s room to really play with the vampire legend.
I can’t remember if I was reading this in a script, or if I was reading this in a vampire novel. It might’ve been a Stephen King, now that I’m thinking about it. I don’t think that film’s ever been really properly done: Salem’s Lot. There’s a description in Salem’s Lot, where just before the vampire kisses you, or just before he bites you, you smell his breath. And, of course, the breath is hundreds of years old—so it’s the worst breath. It’s the scariest breath. It would make you have vomit rush to your throat, but it also would be on top of everything else, especially if you were hypnotized into any kind of sexual moment by the vampire, and then be repulsed by the breath of a handsome vampire, or something like that.
And no one ever does that. They’re afraid to do it. So, that moment, just before the kiss, your victim would vomit, because the smell would be so overwhelmingly horrible.
Stuff like that needs to be thought about and explored.