Photo by Albert L. Ortega

The Most Recognizable Face in Horror

Cult star Michael Berryman explains what it’s like to be the guy who gets the call whenever a movie needs a good scare

27: Horrorshow – MEL On Air

Michael Berryman has been a horror film icon ever since his starring role as the antagonist of the 1977 Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes. In fact, there have been seemingly few horror films made in the last 40 years that don’t feature him in some sort of terrifying way. He plays a desert-dwelling cannibal in The Hills Have Eyes; some of his most recent credits include Death House, Hell’s Kitty, Smothered, Kill or Be Killed and Necrosis. That said, over the years, he’s worked with everyone from Milos Forman (in the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) to one-man ‘80s teen movie factory John Hughes (in Weird Science). MEL Radio recently spoke to the actor about what it’s like to make a career out of scaring the ever-loving crap out of the American public.

Shaped by the Atomic Bomb
Born in 1948, Berryman has a rare genetic disorder called hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia. “It’s a condition that affects the formation of the patient’s skull and cranium,” he explains. “It’s extensive to everywhere from the jaw, teeth and nose. It also can affect things such as your skin, your need to perspire and other multiple birth defects.” Berryman is convinced his condition is a result of his father’s exposure to radiation during World War II. “My father was a navy surgeon attached to the third Marine division, and he went on a secret mission to ground zero at Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” he says. “I’ve seen pictures of my mother that were quite amazing — you could see people on the street, and you could see right through them.”

Donald Trump Reminded Him Why He Learned to Stand Up for Himself
“I was just on my Facebook page and I stumbled upon the video of Donald Trump flapping his hands and mocking the gentleman with cerebral palsy, which is absolutely horrendous. I know what bullying is like: I grew up, after having skull surgery, not having fingernails and hair and with stunted fingers. I remember my first week in high school, I got a phone call and my mom goes, ‘Hey, one of your friends from school wants to talk to you.’ I picked up the phone and it was one of the guys on the football team, with all the other football players in the background. They were all laughing, and saying, ‘Hey freak, saw you in school today — we don’t like ugly freaks like you. Ugly monster, we’re going to mess you up, don’t come to school any more.’ I didn’t know what to do. I said, ‘I’m not going back to school.’ But, of course, I had to.

“There were, however, a few confrontations. I had a very short fuse, and I would get right into people’s faces. One time, for example, someone knocked the books out from my arm and ran down the stairwell. I just dove right over the railing and caught him right in the jaw! But you know what? They never messed with me again.”

The Accidental Actor
After college, Berryman opened a gift shop in Santa Monica, near an antique store run by the daughter of George Pal, the producer of cult classics like The War of the Worlds and Journey to the Center of the Earth. After being told about Berryman’s unusual appearance by his daughter, Pal approached him to ask if he would be interested in a role in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. “I told him I’ve garnered attention because of my looks my whole life — why would I want to put myself out in front of the whole world like that? Then he offered me 400 bucks, and I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

Pal’s casting directors also happened to be working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted Berryman to play a patient who had just undergone skull surgery. “I worked on the film for 127 days in Salem, Oregon, at a mental hospital that was actually functioning at the time,” he says. “We spent two weeks of rehearsals on the major scenes, then at least two hours a day with the patients to get an idea of what it was like. The running joke was that after we wrapped the movie, they would have a special wing just for us.”

The Hills May Have Had Eyes, But They Also Had Very Little Money
Before writer/director Wes Craven found international fame with Freddy Krueger, he was best known for making The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, a tale of a seemingly wholesome American family terrorized by crazed cannibals in the desert (Berryman chief among them). “[We shot it for], I’m guessing, maybe $100,000,” he says. “It could have been less. We went out to the desert and grabbed a hotel. We had one trailer, a motorhome to cook up some soup — we had very, very limited resources.” It was also super-hot, a situation made even worse by Berryman’s condition, which doesn’t allow him to sweat. “Not being able to perspire or dissipate body heat required me to spend a lot of the shoot with bags of crushed ice that I put under my arms, and around my neck.”

From Cannibal Desert Rats to a Rock ’n’ Roll Zombie
Berryman has continued to work in the horror genre, more recently collaborating with Rob Zombie in The Lords of Salem and The Devil’s Rejects. “The chicken-buying scene in [The Devil’s Rejects] played funny and people liked it, but I got a little ticked off when shooting it. The guy was going off script and wouldn’t shut up. Then he did these gyrations and other silliness, which plays but started to annoy me. So when it was time for me to speak, I was actually really angry at him. I could see Rob near the monitor, motioning for us to keep moving and to go along with it. But when he said cut, I pulled the guy aside and told him, ‘Is this what you do for a living? Because when you step on people’s lines and go off-script, you build a reputation of being difficult to work.’ ‘I’m a standup comedian,’ he responded. ‘Good, I said, ‘Keep the day job.’”