When I turned eight, I was assigned the very grown-up chore of riding my bike to the bakery and buying the family doughnuts. There was a certain freedom on those mornings, and I looked forward to the independence of my Saturday quest—until the morning I convinced a neighbor buddy to accompany me. Racing through a mid-century neighborhood on a shortcut to the bakery, we rounded a corner just in time to see our first dead bodies being covered by sheets; there had been a car accident and one paramedic was on the scene already. After we picked up the doughnuts, childhood curiosity got the best of us, and we returned home on the same route. By now, red Rorschach stains had started spreading beneath the sheets, an image that became stamped onto my subconscious forever.
SO, YES, I’D CARVED MYSELF A NICE little niche for myself in horror-movie history. Freddy had definitely wedged his boot in the door and was now mentioned in the same breath along with the famous monsters of filmdom: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, and the Mummy … but that didn’t stop us from killing him off. Truth be told, the time had come. It was 1991—almost seven years after Wes Craven had unleashed Mr. Krueger upon the unsuspecting moviegoing public—and most of the people involved with Nightmare thought, You know what, enough is enough. But, hey, let’s go out strong. Let’s finish up with a bang. The consensus was that if we were going to give Freddy a proper burial, we needed a radical departure from the rest of the series. The result was Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare: part Warner Bros. cartoon and part John Waters “camp.” Warners and Waters is a movie I’d pay good money to see. If that’s not going out with a bang, I don’t know what is.
For the first time since the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which Wes both wrote and directed, our new director had a hand in writing the screenplay too. But this wasn’t just any novice auteur off the street—this was Rachel Talalay, who had been with us since the beginning and clawed her way up the ladder, all without even having to wear a goddamn glove. On the first Nightmare, she was an assistant production manager, which is a fancy way of saying she did whatever needed to be done, from reams of paperwork, to getting Wes a doughnut, to helping David Miller find the missing one-inch piece of foam rubber that had fallen off my ear while I was wrestling with Heather. On Nightmare 2, Rachel was a production manager, which meant that she could tell somebody else to get the director a doughnut or hunt for the fucking foam. On Nightmare 3, she was a line producer, which offered her a chance to be part of the creative process, although she probably had to shout to be heard. On Nightmare 4, she was an honest-to-goodness producer, which meant that people were getting her doughnuts. She handed the producing reins over to her husband, Rupert Harvey, for Nightmare 5 while she produced John Waters’s Hairspray and Cry-Baby, which might explain why there’s such a Waters vibe about Nightmare 6.
In Freddy’s Dead, we had the best Nightmare cameo performances since Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dick Cavett sparred with yours truly on that fake talk-show couch back in ’87. The newlyweds Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold made a brief appearance, as did rocker/actor/golf fanatic Alice Cooper as Freddy’s sadistic stepfather. But the most offbeat cameo of all was the appearance of one Oprah Noodlemantra. If you looked closely at Mr. Noodlemantra during his brief scene, you’ll notice that he bore a suspicious resemblance to the teenage male lead from the first Nightmare, one Johnny Depp.
A Nightmare-phile with a wicked sense of humor and a contemporary edge, Rachel pulled out all the stops: there’s a cartoon sequence, a 3-D sequence, a black-and-white sequence, and a Freddy-goes-skateboarding sequence. Putting Freddy in day-to-day situations, having him do the kind of things that kids would do (e.g., playing video games), was our way of commenting on how Freddy had infiltrated pop culture. Plus, we simply wanted to have some fun; since day one, regardless of how hard everybody worked, we’d had a great time making the Nightmare films, and we were trying to get that sense of joy across to the audience.
To be 100 percent honest, I’ll admit that on Nightmare 6 we jumped the shark. (A quick tutorial on shark jumping: The phrase refers to a three-part episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz does a water-ski leap over a caged shark, which was just about the stupidest thing the Fonz could possibly have done. So when a TV or movie series jumps the shark, that means they’ve veered off into a direction that’s detrimental to the original concept, the actors, and, most important, the viewers.) The comedy might’ve become a little too broad, the fantasy might’ve become a little too trippy, and the violence might’ve become a little too cartoonish. But in the grand scheme of things, we did pretty well, especially when you compare our series to other film franchises: Lethal Weapon jumped the shark the fourth time out, The Godfather lost it on number three, and don’t even get me started about The Phantom Menace.
Apparently the Freddy freaks forgave us for the shark jumping: Nightmare 6 grossed over $35 million, almost $10 million more than Nightmare 5. What with the good box office and the good reviews, we all felt it was safe to have Freddy call it a night. It was like saying good-bye to an old friend. A beat-to-shit, smelly, fashion-challenged, flesh-oozing, K-Y-jelly-covered old friend, but an old friend nonetheless. I toasted Wes Craven and New Line Cinema and went about preparing for my post-Nightmare life. Step one: get a facial.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, OUT of the blue, Wes called me and asked if I’d like to do a television series for NBC with him up in Vancouver. He explained that it would be similar to The Twilight Zone, in that each episode would take on a different subject matter or genre. Home base for the three leads was going to be a kind of purgatory, manifested in the form of an all-night diner, and he asked me to play one of the establishment’s dead denizens. We were throwing around names like Terminal Café and Last Chance Diner,but the network was balking because they wanted the word “Nightmare” in the title to capitalize on the involvement of Wes and me. Wes settled for Nightmare Café, and the network was happy.
My character was named Blackie, a turn-of-the-century gambler, stranded in limbo, who served as a kind of night manager/gatekeeper at the diner, steering lost souls toward redemption. One of my costars was Jack Coleman, who then was best known for playing Steve Carrington on Dynasty and went on to star as Noah Bennet on Heroes. The best part was that Wes was on the set every day, offering suggestions, making changes, instantly correcting dialogue on the first laptop I’d ever seen, and, as always, punning incessantly. (Somehow Wes has kept his inner fourteen-year-old alive and well.) With its ever-changing themes and style—one week we’d shoot a National Enquirer–like spoof about tabloid aliens, and the following week we were tugging at heartstrings with a serious dramatic story about an African-American family—the show was keeping me on my toes and I was loving it. We only shot six episodes, and I’ll always be disappointed we didn’t get to do sixty.
From the ahead-of-its-time opening title sequence, to the closing credits, and everything in between, Nightmare Café looked so goddamn good that it was held up as the new standard for production values on NBC. In terms of the variety of the stories we were telling, no other series remotely like us was on the air at that time. I’ll admit that with its shifting styles and moods, and the only common denominator being the three stars in the diner, the show was a little hard to figure out. But had we stayed on the air, and had we been given a chance to grow, Nightmare Café might’ve achieved the status of Wes’s other successful projects. With two original, quality TV series prematurely canceled out from under me, I was getting a little gun-shy about network television. If a good gig came along, I’d jump on it, but I wasn’t going out of my way to get on the tube.
During the filming of our last episode, Wes approached me and casually mentioned, “So I’ve been talking with Heather.”
“About an idea I have to deconstruct the Nightmare phenomenon.”
I had no clue what he was saying, but listening to Wes’s ideas had always proved entertaining and fruitful. He continued, “I want to do a new Nightmare film where we all play ourselves and explore the effect the franchise’s success has had on our lives and on the culture in general. We can satirize Hollywood, the horror genre, and scare the hell out of people at the same time.”
That sounded like Head to me. In 1968, my Stay Hungry director, Bob Rafelson, had made a strange little movie in which he deconstructed the phenomenon he’d created, the prefab pop group the Monkees. The movie was a bit of a mess, partly I suspect because everybody involved was whacked-out on LSD, and partly because Bob was so sick of Monkee-mania that he was purposely trying to kill it.
Wes said, “Obviously, I want you to be in it, but my question is, would you be willing to play yourself and Freddy, or are you trying to distance yourself from Freddy?”
“Wes, if you’re behind it, count me in.”
“Great. I’ll be in touch.”
I couldn’t wait. But it turned out I had to.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, I was approached to play the Marquis de Sade. When I learned that the movie—which came to be called Night Terrors—was going to be filmed in Alexandria, Egypt, I jumped at the chance. If I was getting paid to visit the pyramids, it didn’t matter that I was playing a kinky old reprobate. An exotic stamp on my passport, a hookah, and a harem girl sounded better than singed eyebrows and an oozing face.
But then the whole project went through a radical transformation. First, for creative reasons, the script was changed, so now, instead of its being about the Marquis de Sade, it was based on a collection of the Marquis de Sade’s erotic short stories and would be updated to the 1920s, and I’d be playing a decadent descendant of the marquis, as well as de Sade himself in a series of historical flashbacks that would bookend the film. Second, the film location would be transferred from Egypt to Tel Aviv, Israel. The producers were concerned that with the change of venue, I’d bail on the project, but working in any part of the Middle East sounded like an adventure to me, so I told them I was still on board. Then at the last second, another change: the filmmakers weren’t able to find any 1920s prop cars in Israel, so they had to alter the script and change it from a period film to a contemporary time frame. Then the director they’d lined up—whom I had taken several meetings with and was really looking forward to working with—quit the project.
I’d already signed the contract, been paid, and had deposited the money in the bank, so I was stuck. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, and the producers realized it, so to keep me happy, they hired one of my favorite directors. Guess who. Tobe Hooper. The thought of Tobe and I creating S&M mayhem on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Tel Aviv was indeed rejuvenating.
Tobe was as hands-on and as cheerful as I’d ever seen him. He would grab the camera and lie down on his back on a skateboard in the middle of the cobblestone streets of Old Jaffa and propel himself crablike, just to get the right shot. Each night after we wrapped, Tobe, his girlfriend Rita, Nancy, and I went out to dinner, usually at a waterfront restaurant, where we’d devour the catch of the day, drink a frosty pitcher of vodka-spiked lemonade, and enjoy a history lesson from Mr. Hooper. One evening as we polished off a platter of fresh calamari, Tobe pointed out a rock shelf jutting up out of the sea and said, “I think that’s the legendary rock Andromeda was chained to when she was to be sacrificed to the sea monster.” And he was right. Keep that in mind the next time you watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; not only can this man scare the bejesus out of you, he can also teach you a thing or two about Greek mythology.
This was 1992, a rare moment of optimism in contemporary Israel. The Oslo Accords were being negotiated, and it looked as if there might actually be lasting peace in the Middle East. Half of our crew was Arab and half was Israeli, and they worked together, shoulder to shoulder, in harmony. We went with some of our new friends from the crew to hear the rock group Simply Red perform at Sultan’s Pool, the vortex of the Holy Land. Under that calm, moonlit Jerusalem sky, surrounded by that diverse young crowd, one couldn’t possibly imagine the suicide bombings and random violence to come.
Wes had finally finished the script for his deconstructed New Nightmare, so after I’d starred in a couple of TV movies, it was finally time for me to dust off the ol’ glove, get the sweater out of mothballs, suck it up, and confront that damn makeup chair again. This was going to be Wes’s final farewell to Freddy, and with Wes, Heather, and John Saxon on board, it felt like a ten-year family reunion.
This was Wes’s opportunity to answer his critics, reinvigo-rate the franchise, and return for the last time to Elm Street. It was also a chance for us to tease the fans with exaggerated depictions of our public personas. Bob Shaye and New Line executive Sara Risher also showed up to wink at the audience with self-deprecating cameos. For the veteran cast and crew, it offered us a sense of closure in a quality movie that we could all be proud of.
Freddy fanatics might be surprised to learn that New Nightmare is my favorite film in the series. Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve discovered something new that I’d missed before, a subtle change in Heather’s wardrobe, a blurred edge between reality and the dreamscape, the savvy integration of real Los Angeles terror (e.g., earthquakes) with movie horror. The credit for all that goes to Wes. We trusted his instincts and followed his lead in this new horror hybrid. New Nightmare made some noise, but it wasn’t boffo box office like Nightmares 3 and 4.
But after Wes’s first Scream film hit movie theaters three years later, New Nightmare was rediscovered on DVD and has now achieved the cult status it deserves. (I believe that New Nightmare had laid the groundwork and contributed to the hugely successful Scream series. Audiences were drawn to people like themselves being depicted in these films. The characters were young, hip to pop-culture horror movies and references, and knew the ins and outs, the contrivances, of the formula horror-movie plot. Wes was the first to acknowledge this audience, and New Nightmare was the first film to exploit that. I was proud to have been part of this smart, scary, experimental valentine to our fans.)
Shortly after New Nightmare opened, Tobe Hooper called. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in going up to Toronto to star in The Mangler, an adaptation of an early Stephen King short story about an old-fashioned industrial laundry machine that eats people. This was a no-brainer: in all the years I’d been doing horror, I’d never done a Stephen King project, and I’ll always jump at a chance to work with Tobe, so I was in.
Immediately after I signed off on the deal, I learned that Canada was out, and South Africa was in. (Notice a trend here?) No problem; another exotic entry in my passport. I’d never been to Africa and had no idea what to expect. Would there be prostitutes assigned to my room as in the Philippines? Armed teenage soldiers as in Hungary? Flammable Styrofoam sets? I was concerned because I was once again going to have to suffer through an extreme special effects makeup application and I hoped for at least a modicum of comfort. I knew by now that when working in foreign locales that standard was sometimes difficult to achieve. But when I found out that my old makeup man David Miller was on the project, my fears were alleviated.
In the ten years since the first Nightmare, David had kept busy, working on such diverse movies as The Addams Family, Naked Gun 331/3, and the classic Tremors. For a lesser makeup man, The Mangler could have been viewed as a tough gig because Stephen King had only given the briefest description of my character’s look, so there wasn’t much to work with. For David, however, this was liberating.
None of my fans would’ve guessed that my main inspiration for the character came from the mind of Orson Welles and a brilliant performance by Everett Sloane. In 1947, Welles wrote, directed, and starred in a classic film noir with Rita Hayworth called The Lady from Shanghai, in which one of the supporting players had polio and was forced to wear cumbersome leg braces and walk with dual arm-fitted crutches. I borrowed those elements, then added a dash of Harry Truman’s can-do personality, and, presto, I’d fleshed out Stephen King’s quick character sketch. I’d solved the look and mannerisms of King’s lecherous Bill Gartley, who remains one of the vilest, most cantankerous SOBs on my résumé. If you are gonna steal, steal from the best.
Just as on my first day on the Hollywood set of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive back in 1977, I was knocked on my ass when I walked on the soundstage in Johannesburg and saw what had been built there. That seemingly interminable flight from L.A. to Joburg was instantly forgiven. Most impressive was the hulking Hadley-Watson Mangler itself, created by Tobe’s son, Tony. It was the laundry folder from hell, the scariest death-machine I’ve ever worked with. (The fucking thing actually worked—if you got too close to it, you were toast.) The set was formidable, with its crisscrossing catwalks, three-story industrial staircases, and a system of aerial conveyor belts constantly circulating soiled canvas laundry bags like spider’s prey cocooned in a web. It was like some hellish factory from a Kafka novel. I marveled at this dark, atmospheric tableau and once again knew I’d made the right decision to schlep halfway around the world to work with such an imaginative, visionary director as Tobe Hooper.
David Miller’s original makeup creation was on par with the production design and I was introduced for the first time to stippling. Simply put, David stretched sections of my facial skin, then dabbed some FX secret sauce on it, blasted me with a blow-dryer, and then released my skin, which gave my face a finely creased crepe-paper look that appeared naturally old. He then applied a premade prosthetic nose, brow, a wattled turkey neck, and ears, then blended these pieces seamlessly into the previously stippled, aged skin. The Gartley makeup took as long to apply as the Freddy face because we also needed time to attach the wig of snow-white hair and blend the netted edge into the makeup. It sounds like a drag, but after seven Nightmare flicks, the Freddy TV series, and literally hundreds of applications, there was no makeup session I couldn’t endure, even in the heat of Africa.