MVPs of Horror: Chris Sarandon Shares Freaky Tales From 'Child's Play,' 'Fright Night,' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'

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FRIGHT NIGHT, Chris Sarandon, 1985
Chris Sarandon in Fright Night. (Photo: Everett)

Halloween is fast approaching, so all this week, Yahoo Movies will be talking to stars who scared us silly in classic horror movies. First up: Child’s Play and Fright Night star Chris Sarandon. Go here to read our complete Halloween coverage.

Since making his groundbreaking film debut as a transgender woman in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, Oscar-nominated actor Chris Sarandon has played many a notable role. And while his fan-favorite performance may be The Princess Bride’s villainous Prince Humperdinck — which still inspires strangers to shout “Humperdinck, Humperdinck, Humperdinck!” at him on a regular basis — Sarandon also has a devoted following from lovers of scary movies. Among their favorites: the horror comedy Fright Night (in which he played a beguiling suburban vampire); Child’s Play (in which he played the police detective who defeats the evil doll); and the family-friendly frightfest The Nightmare Before Christmas (for which he provided the speaking voice of stop-motion hero Jack Skellington). Yahoo Movies asked Sarandon to share his memories of shooting those three frightfully memorable roles.

Let’s start with Child’s Play (1988). One of the highest YouTube search results for “Chris Sarandon” is a scene of Chucky attacking you in a car (see below). Do you remember shooting it?

Ugh! I don’t want to say it was hell on earth to shoot, because there are much worse things than that in life … but it was not fun to spend at least a day, maybe two days — I can’t remember because it was such an unpleasant experience! — sitting in the front seat of the car, having this knife come into the shot. “No no no, we’re not catching the light of the knife right, it’s flaring off the camera, let’s do it again!” Fifty times, 75 times. And spending almost a day in just a little corner of the studio, punching the radio with my hands to try to get the right sort of rhythm of that. It’s not what you think of as the glamour of moviemaking.

Related: MVPs of Horror: William Katt Remembers That Bloody Prom Massacre in ‘Carrie’

I’d imagine, from a technical perspective, the whole movie was probably really difficult.

The whole thing was. We were dealing with little people in Chucky outfits walking around in oversize sets, children in Chucky costumes — [child actor] Alex Vincent’s 3-year-old sister was Chucky once! One day, they were on the set and they realized that the person in the doll suit wasn’t the right size, and [director Tom Holland] looked over and he saw Alex’s little sister, and he went, “Hey, put her in the costume!” And she ran across the set, and that’s the take I think they used.

In the car scene, it looks like Chucky is a puppet. Do you remember if there was somebody in the back seat with it?

Yep. There was always somebody underneath a floor or behind a wall or in a back seat operating Chucky. Often three or four guys with somebody operating the hands, somebody operating the face, somebody operating the hairline. I mean it was a very tricky, exasperatingly difficult stuff to do. So it was not great fun. Not like Princess Bride. Or for that matter Fright Night. Fright Night was a lot of fun.

Watch Chris Sarandon as vampire Jerry in the horror comedy Fright Night:

Fright Night (1985) still has a big cult following. The Internet is full of clips from the love scene in particular — which is kind of funny, because your character Jerry is so grotesque for part of the movie. But when he looks human, he’s really sexy.

That was [director] Tom [Holland]’s approach from the very beginning: that this guy has to be enormously attractive, he has to be charismatic, he has to be highly sexual. That’s what his allure is: He has lived long enough and knows — through his rather long and sordid history — that you attract bees with honey. You don’t attract people with warlike gestures and making a nuisance of yourself. Which is why he moves into a home in a middle-class neighborhood to ply his trade.

So are you the original sexy vampire?

I don’t know if I could say that. I do know that that’s very much the way we set out to create Jerry, and Tom was very insistent all the way through the movie — we would do a scene where I was just walking, and he’s say, “No, no, no, come on, much sexier walk! Even though he’s going to eviscerate a victim, there’s something very sexy about it, and don’t be afraid to turn to that side of yourself.” So he was very instrumental in the creation of this character. As was I! I have to take a little bit of credit.

CHILD'S PLAY, Chris Sarandon, 1988, (c)United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection
Chris Sarandon in Child’s Play. (Photo: United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection)

Do you get approached a lot by women about that role?

Generally speaking, the people who come up to me on the street are a lot of guys who just think Jerry is the coolest. I was in Los Angeles shooting another movie a couple years later, and there was a guy there fixing the TV cable in the house because it wasn’t working. And he didn’t say a word — he was there for like, four hours working — and I’m there looking at scripts. And then as my head is down and I’m signing the bill, he says very quietly, “I’m surprised you come out in the daytime.” And that happens a lot. Also I get looks — like traveling on the subway in New York City, a lot of times a guy will look at me, do a double take, and then there’s a kind of knowing nod. “I know you. You’re bad. I’m bad. You’re the man.” That kind of look.

Watch a clip from The Nightmare Before Christmas featuring Chris Sarandon as Jack Skellington:

In The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), composer Danny Elfman did the singing for Jack Skellington. Do you remember initially how you found that character’s speaking voice?

Well, Danny had already done the singing, so when I went in to audition they played some of the songs. And I think it may have been a rather unconscious effort on my part to sound like Danny, but I think it was just a matter of the fact that our vocal timbre and the quality of our voices was so similar, that it ended up working out that I was the voice they used. Aside from my enormous talent [laughs], that was probably the determining factor, I would think.

Did they have models or sketches to show you when you started recording?

Yes, when I started recording, they had the entire movie storyboarded at the studio; plus they were working on scenes on the set, or I should say, on the sets, because there were a number of sets they were working on any one time. I remember that it was excruciatingly slow. It took two and a half years to put that movie together. I would go and record a scene or two, then they would animate those scenes, then I would go back say three months later and record another scene or two, then they would animate those scenes.

What do people talk to you about when they talk about that movie?

Mostly people, particularly young people in their 20s, come up and say how influential the movie was in their lives. A lot of people who’ve gone through difficult times when they were in their teens — and who hasn’t, by the way? — say that somehow, this movie gave them something to hold on to. Particularly kids who are outsiders. A lot of them feel like this movie was kind of the imprimatur of their existence: This movie was a mainstream hit, I love this movie, and therefore maybe I’m not so weird. I’ve had literally kids come up to me and say it saved their lives. I’m not sure exactly what the process was, but I’m grateful for it.

Watch three not-so-scary Halloween movies to stream: