Panic Fest: Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares gives Robert Englund his long-overdue celebration
This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.
If you’re a horror fan, you know who Robert Englund is. Or, if not that, you know the name, Freddy Kruger. The names are essentially intertwined, for better or worse. To see Englund as only his most famous role, however, is to discredit the man underneath the makeup. He’s a stalwart genre icon whose calm charm and demeanor have influenced countless generations of actors and filmmakers alike.
While it could stand to be a bit shorter, Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares: The Robert Englund Story does a compelling job highlighting just what Englund means to cinema. Under directors Gary Smart and Chris Griffiths, Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares works like “This Is Your Life” with Englund serving as his own Master of Ceremonies. That’s a terrific choice, as he’s a great storyteller who can paint you a picture while recounting his experiences from long ago. It’s an especially poignant device when covering his early years as an actor moving to Hollywood.
While many audiences may know him as “that guy with the scars,” Englund’s contributions to the film world are extensive. He started a theatre troupe with Richard Dreyfuss, became good friends with William Katt, and was directly responsible for important beats in films like Star Wars and John Carpenter’s Halloween (seriously, his stories are great). All this as he found steady work as a character actor in the 70s and 80s in films like V, Eaten Alive, and Stay Hungry, thanks to his chameleon-esque persona. Englund’s stories are lovingly emphasized via clips, stills, and interviews with fellow genre icons like Katt, Heather Langenkamp, Kane Hodder, Dennis Christopher, Mick Garris, and more.
As interesting as these parts of the documentary are, it feels like it needed tighter editorial control. A couple of talking head interviews cover the craft of acting but aren’t necessarily about Englund. Others focus on a period of his career that’s been covered to death. Stories from behind the scenes in any of the Nightmare on Elm Street series are fun, but there’s already a five-hour documentary (Never Sleep Again) dedicated solely to the franchise.
Having most of the runtime focus on the Freddy years strikes a weird chord with the film overall. Countless figures speak to how Englund was and is more than Freddy and became trapped by the persona. When the documentary about him does the same thing, it feels a little uncomfortable.
Running long also seems to be in co-director Griffiths’ wheelhouse, as he was part of the team behind 2022’s Pennywise: The Story of IT. This similar glorified Wikipedia entry went step-by-step through that production, unconvinced there was any footage worth trimming. Letting the similarly light Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares run past the two-hour point strains viewer patience.
Timing may be what sinks Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares, but it is a compelling watch thanks to Englund’s natural gift for storytelling. Any minor tangents are intriguing, commanding full attention as he regales viewers with tales from the heyday of the 70s, with Englund positing himself as a Forrest Gump or Zelig-type figure who just happened to be there for pivotal moments.
Outside his contributions on the big and small screen, Hollywood Dreams & Nightmares is the portrait of an actor who deserves more chances to show his talent. Given Englund’s humility and level of care, maybe he’s just too good for the profession. If anything, the documentary proves Englund’s level of commitment may have resulted in too many good stories to fit into a reasonable length.