During my 13 years as a correspondent for Fangoria magazine I enthusiastically covered the horror beat in Vancouver, visiting the sets of such destined-to-be-awful films as Halloween: Resurrection and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
But it wasn’t just big-screen projects that I wrote about. If there was a horror-related TV series (Poltergeist: The Legacy) or miniseries (Stephen King’s IT) shooting in town I’d get assigned to do those as well.
One such project was NBC’s Nightmare Cafe, which I was psyched about because it starred Robert Englund, the face of Freddy Krueger, and was executive produced by horror legend Wes Craven.
Here’s a shortened version of the set-visit piece I wrote, which was originally published in the July 1992 issue of The Bloody Best of Fangoria.
The sight of a cozy cafe has a way of warming your soul with the promise of tasty, homestyle grub, damn good cups of coffee, and haven from the elements. But there are some eateries you wouldn’t necessarily want to visit, even for a hot chocolate at the height of a snowstorm.
Wes Craven’s Nightmare Cafe is one such place.
On a huge soundstage in Vancouver’s North Shore Studios, the aforementioned diner has been lovingly constructed by a crack team working under production designer Richard Wilcox. Rustic wooden tables are situated in booths that sport ’50s-style jukeboxes boasting tunes by Bobbys Darin and Vinton. Behind the counter, a pink neon clock sheds its glow on the coffee machine; an array of inviting pumpkin pies inhabits a nearby glass cabinet.
But no one is thinking of snacks at the moment; nearly 20 crewpeople are scurrying around the place with lights and equipment, getting things ready for the next scene. Executive producer Craven–who is also directing this particular episode–stands in the center of the cafe, smiling benevolently at the chaos all around him.
Soon enough, all the gear and actors are in place, and Craven calls for action. Chubby, baldheaded actor Don (Twin Peaks) Davis, wearing a sheriff’s uniform, runs out from the cafe’s kitchen. Racing over to the door, he yanks hopelessly on the knob and swings around in terror as the cafe’s cook, Frank (Jack Coleman) catches up and floors him with a punch to the head. The harried lawman gets back up, pulls a pistol from his sock, and gets ready to plug Coleman, who cautiously backs away. “Watch your head!,” warns the cook, just before waitress Faye (Lindsay Frost) clobbers the sheriff from behind with a frying pan, laying him out cold.
As the two stand over the k.o.’d copper, the cafe’s proprietor, Blackie (Robert Englund), saunters over, nattily attired in a brocade vest, a jacket and slacks from the ’20s and shoes from the turn of the century. The distinguished looking fellow pulls a fat cigar from his mouth and quips. “Hey! Not bad for a couple of earthlings!”
Craven looks on approvingly, but has the actors go through their paces another seven or eight times before uttering those magic words, “cut” and “print”. But something is terribly wrong here. We’ve just witnessed one of horrordom’s most feared actor/director teams in action, yet not one drop of blood has been spilled. Fango takes Englund aside and checks his hands but, unbelievably, they’re totally free of the red stuff.
“This is more of a comedy/fantasy than anything,” says Englund of the Craven-helmed episode. “There’s a lot of banter in it, and a lot of quipping. People tend to think of Wes in terms of his horror contributions, but the real Wes Craven fans also know the sense of humur in his work. He has this great sort of surreal comic side too, and in this episode–which is kind of like National Enquirer meets E.T.–he really gets to show that.
Englund has proven himself quite adept at garnering chuckles, too, as evidenced by his ever-more-comic portrayal of Freddy Krueger. After playing Krueger for six movies and a TV series (Freddy’s Nightmares), Englund admits that the dream stalker’s claws are still somewhat embedded in his psyche. But he’s trying to yank them out.
“I did laugh the other day on the set,” he recounts, “and a bit of Freddy’s laugh showed up in that, but they’re really quite different characters. I tended to play Freddy bigger than I really am, and I’m playing Blackie smaller than I really am. And Blackie doesn’t have much sexuality, whereas I sort of exploited a bit of that with Freddy.”
Although he’ll often throw on a wig, a pair of glasses, a false beard or a putty nose to disguise himself for Blackie’s plot manipulations in Nightmare Cafe, Englund doesn’t undergo any heavy-duty makeup during the series. And that’s something he doesn’t mind at all.
“I haven’t really missed that since about Nightmare 3,” Englund confesses, “which was one of the hardest of the films to do. [Director] Chuck Russell just worked everybody into the ground; 17-hour days were an average on that show. I mean, I was excited and jazzed up like a typical Fango reader for the first three Nightmares, and it was really a challenge and really fun for me to do the makeup, but by the end of Nightmare 3 I was pretty fed up with the process of putting it on.”
To get the lowdown on Nightmare Cafe‘s storyline and FX possibilities, a chat with the main main, terror titan Craven, is in order. Luckily, the genius behind such landmark horror flicks as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes turns out to be an open and affable sort as he explains the premise of the show.
“The Nightmare Cafe is a mysterious somewhere between life and death,” reveals the bearded fearmonger, who describes the series as a sort of Twilight Zone meets Cheers. “Our three regulars are there, and each week they have somebody else come into the cafe who is about to experience the turning point of his or her life. The story can be scary, or funny, or whatever we find fascinating.
“And the cafe is a place of extreme rubber reality,” he adds, “so any time you open any door in the cafe, you can plunge into the ocean or into outer space, or your past/future–anything can happen. ”
As executive producer of Nightmare Cafe–which is budgeted at just over $1 million per episode–Craven is keeping a close watch on the proceedings. He is determined to see that this series succeeds where his previous small-screen genre attempt–1989’s The People Next Door–failed.
“That was our first try at episodic television,” sighs Craven, “and I wasn’t really there when it was being made–that was a factor of me being on Shocker at the time. But what we learned was, if you’re not there, it will take on the characteristics of whoever is there.
“So,” he concludes, “producer Marianne (The People Under the Stairs) Maddalena and myself vowed that if we ever did television again, we would be there with the show, and we’re right here every day, making sure that it has our stamp on it.”
POSTSCRIPT: Craven’s stamp couldn’t stop Nightmare Cafe from being cancelled after six episodes due to low ratings.