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Interview: Tom Atkins Thrills Us

by Peter Sobczynski

The veteran of such classic horror films as "The Fog," "Halloween III" and "Night of the Creeps" talks about his latest genre outing, "My Bloody Valentine 3-D."

If you are a fan of Eighties-era genre films, then you are more than likely familiar with the work of veteran character actor Tom Atkins. He battled vengeful spirits in John Carpenter’s “The Fog,” mistreated his comic-book-loving son in “Creepshow” and tried to save the world from deadly Halloween masks in the infamous “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” He is perhaps most beloved for his role as a grizzled cop trying to rescue a bunch of college students from a zombie outbreak in “Night of the Creeps,” the film in which he arrives at a sorority house and delivers the immortal line “I got good news and bad news, girl. The good news is, your dates are here. The bad news is, they’re dead.”

In the new horror film “My Bloody Valentine 3-D,” a remake of the 1981 Canadian-made mad slasher film, he returns to the genre playing, not surprisingly, a grizzled cop trying to stop a series of gory murderers inspired by a massacre that he helped end ten years earlier. Like the film itself, his performance may not win any awards but from the moment he appears on the screen to deliver his unprintable first line to his final appearance at the wrong end of a pickaxe, he is a lot of fun to watch and for genre buffs of a certain age, his mere presence serves as a direct connection between the two eras of horror filmmaking that it straddles.

On a brutally cold Chicago day, the morning after coming into town to do a Q&A at a screening of “My Bloody Valentine 3-D,” Atkins got on the phone with me to discuss both the film and his career. Alas, since the higher-ups at Lionsgate refused to actually let me see the film before interviewing him, I was at a little bit of a disadvantage in regards to talking about the film but as you will see, he still had plenty to say.

How did the screening go last night?

I didn’t go to the screening last night. I went to the one last Thursday at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and it was great. The director and the cast and everybody was there and it was a packed theater and it was really terrific. I just thought it was wonderful. I loved the movie and the 3-D stuff knocked my socks off--it is there from the first frame with the Lionsgate gears spinning and turning. It was just stunning to watch. Last night, they had a screening here and I went for a Q&A afterward and saw maybe the last ten minutes of the film and the audience seemed to really love it and we had a lot of fun at the Q&A.

I am at a little bit of a disadvantage because the good folks at Lionsgate wouldn’t allow me to see the film ahead of time before interviewing you. . .

Why not?

It seems that they just aren’t letting any critics see it ahead of time.

Well, there you are.

Anyway, because of that, could you talk a little about the character that you play in the film?

I play Sheriff James Burke. I was around for the first massacre in the mine and now I am around for the second one. I try to catch the bad guy and it doesn’t work out to my advantage.

Is this a straightforward remake of the original or is this one of those things where they use only the title and make up a completely new story like the “Prom Night” redo?

This is where I am at a disadvantage because I am not familiar with the first one because I never saw it. I assume from the reaction of the audience last night that the killer in the first one is a coal miner as he is in this one.

Obviously the big selling point for the film is the fact that it is being presented in 3-D, the age-old gimmick which has made quite the comeback in the last couple of years. Do you have any thoughts as to why it has become so popular this time around?

My only history with 3-D was the long-ago movies with Vincent Price throwing daggers at the screen, which was never very good, and the funny-looking glasses that you wore. This technology, though, is incredibly different and more effective and thrilling to watch. The gags with the things coming out at your face are terrific but the whole film is terrific to watch.

In terms of actually making a film like this from a production standpoint, how much of a difference does the addition of the 3-D technology make for you as an actor?

I didn’t find it very different at all. We didn’t really have to accommodate to the camera to make any kind of special moves or anything. Certainly the cameras and gizmos that you are acting in front of are very different--bigger and more in-your-face--but as far as me as an actor, I was able to do my job pretty much the same way that I would have done it in 2-D.

As we mentioned before, this film is a remake of the 1981 horror film. As someone who has seen films that you have appeared in getting the remake treatment--a new version of “The Fog” came out a couple of years ago and there have been rumors about new versions of “Escape from New York” and “Night of the Creeps”--what are your thoughts on such things?

If they ever remake “Night of the Creeps,” which is my favorite film of the ones I worked on. . .at the screening last week, I invited Fred Dekker, who wrote and directed the film, to come and we had a wonderful time. We talk all the time about why they have never released “Night of the Creeps” on a righteous DVD--half of the time, we aren’t sure who even owns it--because there is such a cult following for it that I think it would do really great. As far as doing a remake, Fred hasn’t heard anything in the works about that. As for “The Fog,” I don’t know why they ever remade that one. It was such a wonderful kind of old-fashioned ghost story back when we made it but I have heard nothing but grim stuff about the remake and I never saw it so I don’t know how it turned out.

The films that you are best known for are part of the horror genre--was this a favorite type of film for you when you were younger and just watching movies simply as entertainment?

Yeah, it was. The first film that I fell in love with in the genre was “The Thing from Another World” from 1951 with James Arness as the monster. It had all these wonderful character actors stuck up at the North Pole or wherever in the cold--I loved that movie and it scared the hell out of me. I don’t know how old I was but I loved when they all walked out on the ice and made a big circle around the UFO that came from outer space. I’ve always enjoyed them but now, as I reach my waning years, I am not as enamored of horror films as I used to be. I don’t like “Saw” and films like that--they are just too bleak and grim and there is no humor. To me, a good fright film should have a few good laughs in it.

Looking over your filmography, I noticed that your first film was the Frank Sinatra cop drama “The Detective” and in that movie, you actually appear in a couple of scenes opposite him. Being a young actor making his first movie, how intimidating was it to find yourself acting opposite someone as famous as Sinatra?

That was wonderful. I was in New York and had just started out. The first gig that I ever auditioned for and got was for a Broadway play and while it didn’t run long, it was the same year that my agent got me an audition for “The Detective.” I went in and read with Mr. Sinatra and the director, whose name I don’t remember, and did the scene in which he chews me out for having shot somebody in a case with racial overtones. What kind of made it easy was that my character was supposed to be very nervous anyway about being chewed out by this grizzled cop, so it made it easy for me to be a young actor being unsettled and nervous in front of Frank. It fit the scene and so it was easy.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to do this interview was because you have the distinction of starring in two of my favorite weirdo cult movies of all time and I was hoping to get an anecdote or two about them. The first one is the film that, depending on which version you see, is either called “The Ninth Configuration” or “Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane”. . .

What was the other one?

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” of course.

“The Ninth Configuration”. . .oh God. One of my dearest friends is Adrienne Barbeau--I was friends with her before I met John Carpenter--and we have often laughed about “The Ninth Configuration” because I have always believed that a movie about the making of that film would have been much better than the actual movie turned out to be. It was kind of a zoo from the very beginning. William Peter Blatty wrote and directed it and financed part of it by selling a home that he had in Malibu. His idea of getting a good ensemble effort from his actors was to take people over to Budapest for two months--the part I had might have taken two weeks in the States but he had us all over there for two months. All he ended up getting was 22 really upset, angry and drunk actors who had a lot of trouble showing up for work. I thought that the script was wonderful but I don’t think that Blatty ever got what he wanted up on the screen. I think a lot of us took the job because we would be able to go to Prague and Moscow and bounce around Europe when we weren’t working. He decided that he would put up the call sheet for the next day at midnight so that you couldn’t go anywhere.

Now, what about “Halloween III”?

I know that when the film came out, it was ripped to shreds by people who went into it expecting yet another mad slasher film like the previous “Halloween” films. However, in recent years, its reputation among horror fans seems to have improved a little these days. From what I understand, the original conceit was that John Carpenter was going to produce an original horror film each Halloween under the “Halloween” banner and this was the first one.

That was his intention. He was going to do a different Halloween story and while they might not come out every year, they would come out at Halloween and they would be different. “Halloween III” was already shooting when the producers said “Okay, do this the way it is but from now on, just make the Michael Myers ones because that is what the fans want and they make a ton of money.” That is kind of how that happened. We did “Halloween III” the way it was set up to go but maybe it would have been better to just call it “Season of the Witch.” It certainly didn’t have anything to do with Michael Myers or Jamie Lee Curtis. It is a decent and fun fright movie that stands on its own but people were so put off by not seeing Michael Myers--people either hate it or they like it.

You have also had the chance over the years to work with two of the best-known directors in the horror genre. For starters, you worked with John Carpenter on “The Fog” and “Escape from New York.”

It was terrific working with him and I really enjoyed the time that I spent working with him. He was not the easiest guy to work with--he is not a very personable guy. He is a little bit aloof and disconnected from other people but he can sure make a hell of a film. I think the best film he ever made was “Starman” with Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges and I thought that was terrific. John was fine and I would have liked to have done more films with him but I guess it just didn’t work out. Chuck Cyphers did seven with him, I think.

You have also worked with George Romero several times as well.

He’s a dear guy. I love George--he’s a real sweetheart and a big bear of a guy. He isn’t from Pittsburgh but we both lived in the Pittsburgh area--he now lives in Toronto but I still live around the Pittsburgh area. George is just a delight to work with--a really sweet and terrific guy and a fine director. I think he enjoys making the scary movies that he makes. Every once in a while, you think “Geez, wouldn’t it be nice for him to get out of the genre and make something different” but in the next breath, you think “Why should he?” because he does what he does better than most and he loves doing them. He has a passion for it, they always do well and people love them.

Earlier, you mentioned “Night of the Creeps” as being your favorite of the films that you have made. What is it about that one that makes it your favorite?

It is because the character that I played in it, Detective Ray Cameron, was such a jaded, sardonic and sarcastic guy. I loved playing with the kids in the film, calling the one guy “Spanky,” answering the film with “Thrill me”--I had wonderful lines and wonderful situations like getting the flame thrower from Dick Miller by threatening him with a shotgun because I didn’t have the proper police regulation form. We giggled all the time on the set and spent a lot of time on the USC campus driving around in that old Ford that I had. It was great fun from the beginning to the end, especially with Fred. I thought that he was such a wonderful director and had such a great future but it never quite happened for him and I feel bad for him for that. I wish it had.

When you go to screenings or horror conventions and meet fans, is there one particular film of yours that they tend to gravitate towards?

“Night of the Creeps” is the one that most of them gravitate towards. There are a lot of bootleg copies out there because

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originally posted: 01/19/09 15:37:10
last updated: 01/29/09 05:31:18
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