Horror fans should know the name Catherine Hicks well if only for her starring role as Karen Barclay in the original Child’s Play film. Not only does she give her son one of the very worst Christmas gifts in the history of the holiday, she then has to spend the majority of the film running from this possessed killer doll. Fans ate it up and turned this little film into a multi-film franchise that continues to this day (Don Mancini recently announced that filming had completed on Curse of Chucky in anticipation of a Halloween 2013 release). What fans might not know, however, is that Catherine Hicks actually made her feature film debut, alongside Peter Billingsley, way back in 1982 on a horror film called Death Valley.
With Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Death Valley hitting stores on December 11, FEARnet sat down with Hicks to discuss her feature film debut, working with Billingsley, and the lasting legacy of Chucky.
Death Valley was your first feature film role. You had done some television work prior to that, but what was it like to be on set for that first feature film?
Well, what I had done prior was the hugest TV event that year, a biography of Marilyn Monroe [Marilyn: The Untold Story], and there was an actor’s strike. The town was empty. I had always just wanted feature films. I always turned down all sorts of great TV series offers because that wasn’t my dream.
I had just come from New York and I had done The Bad News Bears with Jack Warden and then Marilyn and so Death Valley was sort of like this period where nothing was going on because everyone was on strike. It was like a ghost town, but this movie my agent found and I was just happy it was a feature film. I said okay right away. My hometown is Scottsdale, Arizona, and a lot of it was shot in the desert there. I remember John Lennon died when we were in Tucson on location.
Did that impact the set at all?
No, not that I recall. It impacted me.
Did you feel a lot of pressure at the time? As you said earlier, this is what you really wanted to do.
I know. I’m always in denial when something is a horror film because I always just think, “Well, it’s always just a top-notch feature film.” So, no, I was more excited and happy. I was also impressed because Paul Le Mat had just been nominated for an Academy Award for Melvin & Howard so he was a very valid movie actor. I didn’t know anything about Peter Billingsley at the time. The director [Dick Richards], I think there was some chaos on the set at one point. (Laughs)
We definitely had some set issues. Paul Le Mat was…what shall I say… temperamental. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Much like his character!
Yeah. It was really just about going along with the flow and trying to do a good job. I remember that it was hard to shake Marilyn. I still had a little bit of her in me, so I think I still had blonde hair and I was slightly overweight. I was still sort of half-Marilyn.
Was it a normal audition process for you getting this role?
I think it was an offer. There was high interest because I was, again, very high profile for the Marilyn Monroe biography, but I think I may have read as well. I know I had a meeting. I don’t remember auditioning. I think it was a meeting and an offer.
Were you aware of Dick Richards’ previous films, like Farewell, My Lovely, prior to signing on for the role of Sally?
I think so. My agents told me about his work, but I hadn’t seen Farewell, My Lovely.
Other than the somewhat chaotic set at times, how was it working with him?
I thought he was very nice and very mild-tempered. That’s what I recall. He, perhaps, could have been a more dynamic captain of the ship and have more of a vision, but he was very relaxed and nice.
How was working with Paul, aside from his sometimes temperamental attitude?
I liked him. We got along very well.
And what about Stephen McHattie? He seems to be supremely creepy in just about everything he does.
I know. Well, I thought he was just really darling. He had just done a James Dean biopic and I think I felt kindred spirit to him having just both played legends and having them well received. I thought he had a neat quality. To me, he was what I pictured James Dean would be. He was quiet and private, but not creepy and not an asshole. (Laughs)
I think the three of you have this great chemistry in the film and then you throw in this little child actor named Peter Billingsley who would go on to be synonymous with A Christmas Story. Was he a natural right from the start? Did you just see it in him that he had it?
Yeah, he’s minimalistic and he’s just so adorable in the film. He doesn’t do a lot of acting, which is why it’s cute. He’s not precocious. I’m pretty sure that he had already shot A Christmas Story prior to shooting Death Valley because there was an air of confidence in him and his parents were rather, I thought, overly confident. (Laughs) So it was like as if he just came off leading a picture. They weren’t insecure. He probably learned a lot on that film.
He has very similar glasses and that same little list in Death Valley that he has in A Christmas Story. It’s adorable.
Exactly. I remember we were both from the area – Phoenix was their hometown as well, so we had that in common.
I was watching the film again recently and it’s coming out on this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, which is great, but it’s so strange to see this film (and I don’t know when the last time you’ve seen it) today because it’s completely un-PC, by today’s standards, in the way that it treats the divorce situation. It’s kind of a universal situation with Billy not liking his mother’s new guy, but the way that Mike tries to win his affections (and the way he gets annoyed with Billy so incredibly easily), I can’t see that ever working on the screen nowadays. Do you feel like there’s a way they could ever make Death Valley now or do you think it’s completely a product of its time?
Oh, that’s so funny. You mean because Mike gets ticked off at the boy for not liking him.
Yeah, in the first two minutes or so of meeting him in the car.
I think that’s a comic thread. I think they’d still do it to this day because it’s still true. You can say politically correct on paper, but the fact is that it’s human beings and I know it’s still a problem for kids and for step-dads. They might sugarcoat it now, but I think it’s more realistic our way.
It does feel more genuine and honest that way, absolutely. In a way, it’s like Mike has to become this superhero to win over this little boy, which is what he does.
Oh, interesting! That’s neat.
He goes from being a villain in the beginning to being a hero.
That’s really neat. I wonder if the writer intended that.
I assume probably not. (Laughs) But I’m glad that’s the way it worked out because I think it makes Death Valley a better film if you view it through that scope.
You said you grew up in the area where you filmed Death Valley so you were pretty familiar with it. What was it like out there filming?
Yeah, I grew up in Scottsdale in the desert. It’s just a wasteland. That house was creepy though. You know, in the desert there are so many nuts that build stone houses. The desert seems to attract eccentrics and loners. That rock house we shot in just creeped me out. That always creeps me out, people who go way out somewhere. I think people that seek wilderness solitude are kind of curious.
FEARNET: It’s that isolation, and that’s a part of what I think makes Stephen’s performance so good as well. He seems so isolated, like he’s cut off from the world.
CH: Yeah, and that’s pathetic. And, yet, I like him because he has a bit in pathos. I think you just look at his face and you feel sorry for him. He’s got those quiet eyes.
FEARNET: Was it just as hot and sweaty out there as it looks on film?
CH: We did it in December so it was delightful.
FEARNET: You’ve done your fair share of horror films, or films with some very dark elements in them, throughout your career. Were you a fan of the genre before or was this something that you just kind of fell into?
Oh, no. I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t know anything about horror until I met my husband [Kevin Yagher], who created Chucky, and I, for the first time, heard a justification or a purpose for horror films. He’d created the special effects makeup for Freddy Krueger and the Crypt Keeper, but I met him on the first Child’s Play film. He told me that it’s a safe ride. People love to be scared and a horror film is a safe way to do that. You know, dolls don’t come to life. I think serial killing horror movies are more terrifying because they exist, but horror films are like a release for people. We’re all afraid in life. Life is scary, and this is a great way to get it out.
So you have this film like Death Valley that has this amazing little cult following that loves the film and then you go on to play Karen in Child’s Play, a film and franchise that’s become part of the horror movie lexicon over the last two decades. Did you ever imagine that the movie about a killer doll would be such a long-lasting hit?
No, not at all. I’m like a trained actress from New York on Broadway; I always look at the role, but I had an ego and I wanted to be famous and make money too. I confess. I’m not just an “artist,” you know? I’m sort of a whore sometimes. (Laughs) It was a big role, Child’s Play, and I liked the role. If it’s drama and it’s big, I’ll go for it. To work with Chris Sarandon… A lot of scenes were cut that were all about me and my son and my husband. So, if a role is chunky I really look at it because I like to carry a picture, or be in it a lot.
What was it like working with that Chucky doll in a time when just about everything had to be practical. CGI was still in its infancy.
Oh, God! There were twelve puppeteers. It was fascinating! For Kevin [Yagher] it was a huge job for him, a huge task, and a huge responsibility. I mean, the mechanics for this were crazy. They were on a trolley under the floor of the living room and there were many, many dolls. All different types. Rod puppets, and then the animatronics, which took twelve guys to operate. One for the mouth. One for the left ear. You get the idea. Sometimes when they’d say “cut,” Chucky would still be alive. I will forever prefer that to CGI. To me, CGI is drawing and motion pictures are things in time and space. I think it’s much neater. It’s like another genre. To me, it becomes animation. Puppets are primal. Punch and Judy, you know. To this day my husband can make a sock talk and it’s pretty basic. People love it.
Do you feel like you would ever come back to the series? They’ve been working on another one, of course, and there’s been talk of a Child’s Play reboot or remake for years now. Does something like that interest you at this point in your career?
Sure, yeah, but they wouldn’t ask. (Laughs) I’ve learned, in everything, that each film has different producers and directors and they want to do their own thing. They’re usually very reluctant to do anything like bringing on previous actor’s on to the new one – except the doll, of course. (Laughs)
Well, I know Brad Dourif is back, which is great. You can’t have Chucky without Brad, right?
No, absolutely not. I love Brad. He’s the best.
Do you feel like your work with Peter [Billingsley] on Death Valley prepared you for your work with Alex [Vincent] on Child’s Play?
Yeah, for sure, because I wasn’t a mom until way later and I’m telling you, I can spot it now in an actress. When you haven’t had a child, unless you grew up with a lot of kids around you, it’s just not believable. It’s really hard to play a mom convincingly. We had to do a lot of improv and become really buddies for Child’s Play. I haven’t seen Death Valley in a while so I don’t know if I come off as a real mom.
I think you do. I think you and Peter are great together.
Oh, good. Well that’s a testament to personal chemistry and maybe acting ability because it wasn’t in my comfort zone yet.
I think a whole new group of people will be able to see that when this Blu-ray comes out as well.
I love that this film is alive and validated. You spend two months of your life in something and then you just assume if it wasn’t a hit that it will die. I love that about life nowadays. Things don’t die.
You can see Catherine Hicks as “Sally” in Death Valley when the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray & DVD Combo Pack hit stores on December 11.