Michael Berryman is a true icon of the horror industry, with him making a huge splash in the genre as Pluto in Wes Craven’s legendary The Hills Have Eyes. Since then, Berryman has had a multiple-decade-spanning career that’s taken in a whole host of projects and he remains one of the most recognizable figures in the business. With Arrow Video now releasing an impressive, crammed Blu-ray of The Hills Have Eyes as the movie comes up for its 40th anniversary, we caught up with the hugely engaging actor to discuss his memories of the film, working with Wes Craven, his thoughts on the sequel and subsequent remake, his time working with Rob Zombie in more recent years, and his opinion on what makes the horror genre so special.
STARBURST: Firstly, how did you end up as a part of The Hills Have Eyes originally?
Michael Berryman: Well, way back when, I got my start in film by accident. I left college and was going to homestead in Alaska working on reservation animals and conservation. I moved back to Santa Monica and to Venice Beach, California, to a little gift shop. It was a little tiny store, and a gentleman walked into my store one day – his name was George Pal. And George, of course, produced War of the Worlds. We had a lovely conversation, and he said, “By the way, you have an interesting look. I think you would fit for the role of the coroner in Doc Savage.” And I go, “Oh, I read those books, they were kind of neat, but I’m not an actor.” I studied Art History, but I wasn’t really an actor. So he said, “Well here, here’s my card. Call my office. Think about it.” So I did, and I met him and his director, and he said, “Look, it’s a two-day job and you’ll have a Screen Actor’s Guild card. I really want you to be in my movie.” I figured that’d be a good way to maybe save a little money to go to Alaska. I worked two days and it got me a $1,000 or something. So that was it. I thought that would be the career. At the time, Warner Brothers had a casting agent that helped him, and they were doing another movie they were casting. That little movie was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I got a phone call one day asking me to come down and meet Milos couldn’t make it, Wes couldn’t make it, of course, because he’s passed on. It was a wonderful reunion, we watched clips from the movie. Tony Timpone from Fangoria Magazine was moderating the panel – great questions, great stories – and we actually at one point, when the movie was out, it was playing in a drive-in in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando valley, Peter, Wes and I all got in a van and drove up to see the movie. They talked me in to wearing my Pluto outfit. Halfway through the movie, they all thought it would be funny – and I agreed – to go around and bang on car windows and scare people. And I did so, and the last thing I remember was a girl screaming and this big guy with a baseball bat just yelling at me for scaring his girlfriend. He’s chasing me! I’m running for my life while on screen everyone’s being terrified. In the movie, we’re attacking the trailer, and I’m looking to find where the van was as I had lost track. I see the headlights, the van pulls out, Wes Craven is on the side of the van opening the door, shouting to me “Run! Run! Run!”. He reached his hand out, I jumped and got in the van, the guy is still chasing us, and we peel off and head to a diner, sit down and have a cup of coffee and a dessert. We all looked at each other and realised that we had a hit on our hands.
When you were on set, was there a moment during the production that you realised you had something really special, or was it only when you were being chased at a drive-in that you realised that?
Well we never thought that the movie would go anywhere. It was very hot at daytime and cold at night, very limited, we had one motorhome that was everything – that was wardrobe, that was where you’d sit and relax, where you’d wait to do your next scene. We didn’t think the movie would really go anywhere. A lot of the actors - we called them the ‘Whitebread Family’, then there was the ‘Hills Family’ - they were TV actors, soap actors, that kind of stuff. They didn’t really like it that much… “Oh, I’ve gotta go out of the city, way out in the middle of the desert… Victorville, California? Where’s that?”. I’d lived out in that area so it didn’t bother me, but they were kinda not happy about it. We worked well together, we did a good movie, we’re all friends to this day, but we never thought the movie would go anywhere. But it caught people’s attention, and it’s so effective. It’s such an effective film. I think we shot it in 16mm. We started looking at the reviews, and one thing led to another, and it caught on. Then we realised we had a hit! I remember a couple of years after the film had been released, I was looking at the Los Angeles Times. It was during the time that it was out, when it was released. There was a full-page poster, and there I was on the poster. That was really, really nice. Then in the small corner of that newspaper was a little box that said “In a galaxy far, far away… Star Wars”. Well I was doing a movie with Mark Hamill, and I brought this to the set one night – the movie was called Guyver, a cool movie – and I go, “Hey Mark, look what I’ve got here”. And then I go, “Look, I’m on a full-page ad for a movie”. He goes, “Wow! That’s pretty cool!”. I said, “What do you think this little box in the corner, what’s this Star Wars about?”. Then we started to laugh, which went on for a while. He asked whether the film did a good box office, so I said, “Wait a minute, aren’t you in that movie?!”. Then he laughed and autographed it for me. So I had a joke about how big my ad was compared to his little movie, and I hoped his career went somewhere after that.
Michael with Suze Lanier in The Hills Have Eyes
You mentioned that Monsterpalooza had a screening of the The Hills Have Eyes recently. Does it ever surprise you how popular the film is still to this day amongst so many different generations?
Good question. No, it does not. Over the many decades it’s held its own. The remake was a good attempt, but it didn’t have the depth. One of the things about remakes, especially in The Hills Have Eyes – it’s prettier to look at and all that, and it has its moments – it doesn’t have the grit, it doesn’t hold the tension. And one of the most important aspects of good storytelling, and how we managed to accomplish that in The Hills Have Eyes, is something I picked up on during a Bruce Lee movie. I think it was during Enter the Dragon. Bruce is going to go to Han’s tournament and he’s talking. He says, “You gotta hang on. I’ve gotta teach this kid some martial arts”. And the boy’s trying to learn, he’s young. Bruce says, “Hit me! No, no, no. Not in anger. Emotional content. It’s like pointing your finger to the moon and don’t focus on your finger or you will miss out on all of that celestial glory”. The point being you have blocking, you have action, you have wardrobe, your props, you’re all set for the scene, and you have words to say, your dialogue. A lot of people hit their mark, blurt out their lines, and that’s it. Well that’s not enough. What we had on The Hills Have Eyes was the believability; everybody believed in their character, everybody created a personal history with their character. So the interaction was more honest, had more depth, had emotional content. And that’s why it’s held its own. Of course, Wes had a brilliant eye in his editing and his directing, and he knew how to bring everybody together. So that’s why it’s still so strong.
When the concept came up for The Hills Have Eyes II, was there ever any trepidation from yourself about doing that or were you more than happy to return?
No, when you’re a working actor and you have a project that’s fully funded, you have a start date, you have your Union contract so you know you’re protected in the proper manner - unless there’s some serious objection to the role, you jump on it, you take it. There’s a thousand other actors who will take it if you don’t want it. Of course you take it. A lot of people think, and it’s not their fault, that they believe that everyone in Hollywood, so to speak, is driving around with a lot of bling, a fancy car, but the fact is that 60% of all of the Screen Actors Guild members are unemployed at any given moment. About 5% secure 90% of the revenue. Well the 60% are mostly unemployed and make less than $1,000 a year. I run across people a lot who go, “Oh, well I’m very talented, I’ve studied theatre and Shakespeare”. That’s all fine and dandy, but film is a different medium. I’ve seen stage actors that were terrible on a set because they don’t understand what a camera does and how to block, how to cut, why you put it together in pieces, and they do it wrong – they play too big. No, no, no, it’s a motion picture. When I did Cuckoo’s Nest, I asked Milos Forman, we had two weeks of rehearsal for the major scenes with a camera for blocking, and I asked Milos, “You know, give me some pointers. What are some things that I need to know?”. And he walked me in front of a Panavision camera and said, “Look at the lens. You see the numbers and the dials? They do this, they do that, they pull out a tape measure to measure how far your face is away from the camera. Then they put tape marks on the ground, you’re supposed to stand directly on those spots. There’s a reason for all of that. Now look through the eyepiece”. I did, and I was transformed – I thought, “Wow! I get it now!” So, he says, “The answer to your question, Michael, is this: you should have a love affair with the glass.” And I took notes, I asked lots of questions, very technical questions, and now I have a reputation for knowing how to do what an actor should do when the camera is rolling and it’s moving and its dials are dials and twists are twists, and focus is pulled, handheld, all of that stuff. I really enjoyed that aspect of my art and my craft, it’s part of being a professional. It’s carried me through, it’s helped me get other jobs because people go, “Wow! Michael can get his stuff knocked out in one or two takes, then we can move on to different angles, one or two takes and keep on moving.” And that means your producers are spending less money and they’re getting a day’s work done. You’re done running beyond your budget. If you burn over your budget, it doesn’t help. If you can save a little money then there’s some money that you can put towards advertising or other things to have a successful long run of the film. It really is a multi-department aspect. There’s a lot of departments in putting a film together. I think it would be a good thing if more actors would appreciate and understand that. Some can be very talented and get the job done. I’m not a big fan of people with egos and “Oh, don’t talk to me, I’m in my zone”. Okay, I’ll respect that, but overall I think it’s childish.
How was the experience the second time around for The Hills Have Eyes II? We guess there was a bit more money involved, a bit more faith in Wes…
They had a little more budget, so the wardrobe was a little cleaner, we had different lights, we had HMI lights, the lighting was a little better. I wasn’t very excited about the Reaper character; I thought John Bloom was just sort of walking through it. The make-up was terrible. I loved some of the aspects, like the dog having the flashbacks. The sequel was okay but it doesn’t have the punch that the original did, honestly. It’s prettier to look at. Some of the situations that the kids find themselves in, that Cass was blind was kind of an interesting element that Wes put together, but the actors just weren’t in to it. To them it was another job, they weren’t that in to it really. Janus Blythe really did a good job, but there’s some silly moments that were unnecessary. Willard Pugh, who was the black African-American gentleman, he has a girlfriend. Then the other gal, there’s shenanigans going on, danger here and there, then the girl takes a shower and he’s going to jump her bones. I thought that was a real cheap shot. I mean, really, it’s almost racist, for Christ’s sake. I thought that was unnecessary. We had a different executive producer that was problematic. I was out the night before doing a fundraiser for the Animal Shelter in Lake Morongo Valley where we were at. When we got back to the hotel, I remember the next day there was the newspaper with our pictures, me and the bionic dog and our fundraising event – this is all good publicity – but then I noticed there was the Sheriff Department there. People were upset – parents - and something very horrible was going on with one of our producers. It had nothing to do with Wes, it just had something to do with one of the producer investors. I can’t go in to too much other detail, just use your imagination, but I was bloody furious. I remember walking in to the production office, I had heard what had happened, I guess somebody had written a big cheque to silence any prosecution. A long story short, I closed the door and talked to that individual and gave them the fucking riot act because I thought he was a very terrible person. So that didn’t help as far as my memories of how fantastic the sequel was. But people liked it. It was a job, it was okay, but it couldn’t touch anywhere near the impact of the first one. People come to signings, they don’t bring Part II. Maybe five out of a thousand will – it’s always the original.
Michael in Wes Craven's Deadly Blessing
Much like yourself, Wes is obviously an icon of the genre. With The Hills Have Eyes, he was still in the infancy of his career. What was it like working with him on those pictures?
Well yeah, I worked with Wes also on a movie-of-the-week. It was called Invitation to Hell, with Susan Lucci. That was kind of trippy and for TV. We also did, with Ernest Borgnine and Sharon Stone, her first movie, we did Deadly Blessing in Texas. That was a different kind of role. But I’ve always loved working with Wes. We were good friends, I went to his wedding, was at his services at the Directors Guild last February. He was just a kind, intelligent, soft-spoken great guy. Just very, very sharp-witted. He knew how to weave a story, and I always had a wonderful time with Wes. He really was a good guy.
In more recent years you’ve worked on The Devil’s Rejects and The Lords of Salem with Rob Zombie. Much like Wes Craven’s movies look and feel like a Wes Craven movie, with Rob Zombie you know straight away that it’s a Rob Zombie movie. How has it been working with him and with the visceral, intense and gritty style that he always brings?
There’s some similarities. He’s a big fan of the genre, he has a keen eye about it. The Lords of Salem, unfortunately, was kind of piecemeal because in the opening sequence there’s 3 1/2 pages of dialogue where Sid Haig and I are having conversations with the British people who are going to arrest the witches. We have a conversation where it’s all about describing what’s going on, why we’re going to arrest them. When we were doing the scene, the first scenes we shot at night were very cold with the witches. There’s some great panoramic wide shots with the fires where they’re going to burn the witches. Capturing the witches, it was cold and miserable, especially for the actresses. Here come two of the gentleman that are going to arrest the witches, and we’re assisting them, and I think one or two of them are pretty darn famous and do theatre and Shakespeare and they have Oscars… and they didn’t know they’re lines. So we get to those scenes at about 1am, everybody had been through a tough situation, Sid and I had practiced, and, well, here’s what we heard: “Rob, can you make the torches brighter? I can’t read the arrest warrant.” I’m sorry but they’re scripted lines, and I look at Sid Haig and we go, “Oh, well we’re screwed!” So we go back to our trailers, we wait two more hours, they released us, everybody went home, we didn’t shoot the scenes we were supposed to shoot. Rob said that if he knew they couldn’t see, he’d have made it his expense as a company to pay for anything, to have prescription glasses that would fit the time period. Because those opening scenes were missing, the audience doesn’t quite understand what the hell’s going on. I think it was too much filler footage of Sheri Moon’s beautiful ass. She’s got a nice butt, you know. My point is, it lost a lot of the story. You have the demon hanging on the wall, floating, blah, blah, blah. I haven’t seen his Halloween, I hear it’s quite good, but I think with good funding and letting Rob do what he wants to do, I think he will carry on in his own style, which is a little more grindy, a little more like heavy metal vs. jazz, I suppose, like a mosh pit. Everybody has their own tastes, I’m just not a big fan of that loud, grinding, ‘can’t understand what they’re saying’ kind of thing. It’s just not my thing. But he’s a great guy, he’s fun to work with, he listens. I had a great time working with him on Rejects. That movie is very effective, well crafted, it’s stylistic, it’s a complete beginning, middle, end storytelling. So yeah, Rob is very cool. Rob is Rob, and Wes will always be Wes.
You also did John Schneider’s Smothered. That movie features a lot of the guys who you’d usually be doing the convention circuit with. What’s the camaraderie like between the guys who you see around at all these cons on a frequent basis?
Well I haven’t seen John since the movie. I think he’s hit me up on Facebook once or twice. It was fun to work with other actors in the genre. It was kind of similar to what a convention’s like. I haven’t even seen the film, so I can’t answer that side of things. They were supposed to send us a DVD when they come out, you know. Nine times out of ten they never do! I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve read the script – it’s catty, it’s cute. I actually had some ideas that I gave to John on a sequel. It was cute and clever, I worked a couple of days, then I came home. That’s pretty much it. It’s always nice to work with my friends, but I really can’t comment on the final product because I’ve never seen it.
Michael in Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem
And what about the kinship you guys have at these conventions? You’ve all had similar careers and all been thrust in to the horror spotlight at times. Does that result in a bond there between each you?
It’s a very tight community. We all know one another. Like, I saw over the weekend my friend Jeffrey Coombs. Don Bradley, Sid Haig... all of us… Billy Moseley, Kane Hodder. We’re all very good friends, we all keep in touch, we know about our kids and families or if somebody has a health issue. It is an extended family. It’s probably more so than in any other genre, to be quite honest. We compare notes for work, we help each other get on other projects, we keep in touch. It’s friendships that have lasted decades. So I’m very grateful to George Pal for getting me in this line of work and for some economic viability and health insurance and all the things that go along with it. They’re family in the real world, and we work together on projects, like Gunnar Hansen’s Death House. That’s being pushed by Mr. Harrison , our director. It is a special bond, I have to admit that. That’s what makes it somewhat fun, and especially at the conventions – it’s the fans! I answer all of my fan mail myself, I always have. The fans are intelligent. These aren’t just over-the-top 16-year-olds that have monster posters on their wall; these are people with children and grandchildren, and they have real jobs, some in the government, some are professors. They know everyone in the horror genre, they’re well-read, educated, have a great sense of humour – a good balance. They have, I would say, a very good sense of humanity, which is very important to me. They care about more than just getting scared; blood ‘n’ guts ‘n’ special effects ‘n’ titties aren’t just their cup of tea.
As someone who’s so engrossed in the horror genre, what do you think keeps fans coming back for more? Is it as simple as the age-old thing of wanting to be scared?
I think quite simply it’s, like Wes and I, like we all know – I mean, I grew up watching Vincent Price and Karloff – it’s just people like to be scared. And you want to survive the event. It’s cathartic. It’s almost therapeutic. There is a difference between that and snuff films and just gratuitous violence, disgusting things like… I’m not a big fan of The Human Centipede. I’ve heard about it, but I don’t care how intelligent the concept is behind it, I just find it disgusting. But it’s a free country, you can say what you want at the box office and people will respond in kind. But I abhor some of the things that happened, like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust – killing animals to be on scene, being gross. I actually went on a film after we had agreed to reshoot a continuous scene where I had done something to a young lady. The way it was filmed, I go, “No, no, we’re not doing that. We can do it after the fact, let the imagination of the audience take the place of this gratuitous bullshit that you want to do. I’m not doing that.” Then when I arrived, they went, “We’re gonna do it the other way.” I said, “Nope, we’re not. It was a conversation I recorded with your permission, here’s my contract, we’ll do it the other way.” They said no, so I told them that they were in breach of contract, give me a full cheque, put me on a plane tomorrow morning. And they did. So my point is, the attraction is basically a thrill-ride. To the degree what elements people appreciate it kind of reflects more on a viewing audience. If your personal preferences are blood ‘n’ guts ‘n’ gore, maybe your 14-years-old. Or maybe you’re a special effects artist! I mean I’ve seen some martial arts movies that are over the top, where people’s heads explode. When it’s done in a gruesome manner, it becomes basically torture pornography. It’s pretty disgusting.
Do you think in more recent years the art of good horror storytelling has been lost a little, that people make it a bit too unrelenting, nobody comes out of the film really ‘winning’ as the audience is beaten down with gore and violence in modern horror?
Well there’s probably more of that than there maybe has been in the past. With the internet also, there’s some really creepy areas of the internet. Then there’s video games that I think are almost clinically depressing.
The new Blu-ray release of The Hills Have Eyes is out on October 3rd.